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Water Towers and Kevin Swallow's Urban Landscapes

"Andersonville Water Tank," oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
As a foreigner living in the United States, I can attest that one of the most striking features of the urban landscape in America is the water tower. European cities may have walls built by the Romans, medieval palaces, and grand eighteenth-century neo-classical boulevards, but as far as I’m aware you can’t look up from a street in Paris, Rome, or London and see these giant wooden cylinders with their little caps, standing on a rickety framework and silhouetted dramatically against the sky. The Chicago water tower, for example, may have been referred to by Oscar Wilde as “a castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it,” but it is revered in the city as one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and it’s just one of several hundred that are still dotted around the city.


A century ago, almost every apartment building had a water tower sitting atop the roof. As modern plumbing was installed, most of these water towers were disconnected or demolished, to the point where there are currently fewer than 200 left. It is against this backdrop of urban renewal (which some might call destruction) that artist Kevin Swallow’s recent exhibition, “This Must Be the Place,” can be evaluated. In this show of some fifteen paintings at Firecat Projects, the water towers of Chicago are the central feature. Some are depicted from close up, as if viewing them at eye level from the rooftop. Some are shown from below, as if the viewer is looking up from the street. In some pictures, the skyline takes up most of the space, and the water tower becomes a bit player in a larger architectural ensemble. Most of the paintings are executed in bright colors and picture-book style contours, giving them a child-like or cartoonish feel. The better painting occurs when Swallow uses a more subdued palette, as in "River North Electricity", and instead of using quick flat strokes, spends more time framing the water towers against curling entanglements of power cables, or the intruding bulwark of an El track’s support. This seems less like a postcard than many of the works on display, and more like the work of someone whose visual interest in the shape of the water tower has begun to encompass how that shape interacts with its environment.

"River North Electricity," oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
In November 2014, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks redefined its list of what should be preserved, and the water tower was deemed unworthy of preservation. From now on, if there is no other compelling reason for historic preservation related to the specific building or district in which the water tower is located, that list of 200 or so surviving Chicago water towers could shrink to just a handful in the coming years. Kevin Swallow’s paintings of water towers, then, are hymns to a notable American structure, and quite soon they could also be elegies to something that’s disappeared for good.

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