Chris Ziolkowski, a general contractor who spends many of his working days on Buffalo rooftops, never expected to see his work in Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
But on Saturday, Ziolkowski’s sculpture, which he pieced together from about 15 kinds of roofing material as part of an unorthodox exhibition devised by local artist and architect Dennis Maher, will go on view in the region’s most respected museum. It is part of an exhibition that includes works by eight local masons, electricians, weatherization experts and other contractors Maher enlisted for the project.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Ziolkowski, who owns Zee’s Property Services, a 27-year-old general contracting business headquartered on Jefferson Avenue. “People try to get in there their whole life, and they don’t get it. Pardon me, but this schmuck was asked to make a piece, and it’s going in the art gallery, heavy-duty.”
The exhibition, called “House of Collective Repair,” is the culmination of an art project that Maher began in 2009, when he bought a house on Fargo Avenue, at the edge of the D’Youville College campus.
Maher, whose work deals with the decline of Buffalo buildings, gradually turned the house, where he lives, into a living piece of installation art. When he bought it, the house was dilapidated and under the threat of demolition, which allowed Maher to buy it for just $10,000.
As part of the project, Maher invited the contractors through the house, which he structurally modified in hundreds of large and small ways and filled with an ever-changing collection of sculptures and other artworks.
The contractors drew inspiration for their individual sculptures from the house, an outsize cabinet of curiosities that Ziolkowski called simply “wild.” In the course of his project, Maher has strategically made holes in the walls and floors, effectively peeling back the materials of the house to reveal decades of changes and renovations.
A collection of dollhouses (with which Maher has something of an obsession) is stacked in the basement and visible from the top floor. The ceiling of what used to be the attic is covered in hollow-core doors, underneath which sits a collection of old armoire parts and several sculptural works-in-progress.
“I really want to make sure the building is taken care of at the same time as it’s treated as an experiment,” Maher told The Buffalo News in September. He describes the house project as “an organism,” or a kind of dollhouse, meant to represent the larger city and new ways to confront Buffalo’s housing challenges and other issues of space and living.
The project, he continued, “is like a mirror of the houses outside, bringing [the outside] inside and then reconstituting it and creating within it a kind of marvelous, fantastic landscape.”
Maher’s Albright-Knox residency, he said, was a way to open up the work he has been doing there to a wider swath of Buffalonians. Given logistical challenges and occupancy limits (not to mention the fact that Maher still lives in the house), opening up the house to the public isn’t possible. But the gallery exhibition, he said, is a way to “engage the public, engage the people who move through [the house] and get them to think about their living environment.”
Maher praised the gallery for backing the project.
“I think the Albright deserves a lot of credit for actually supporting someone who’s based in the area,” he said.
For Ziolkowski, Maher’s message seems simple enough:
“To me, it looks like the ability to reuse materials and look at them in new ways,” he said. His own sculpture “looks like a three-story, open-sided home made out of various roofing materials [like] slate and copper. It was an interesting experience. I have never done anything like that before, so it was kind of nice to bring out some creative juices in myself.”
The other contractors whose work is featured in the exhibition are Joaquin Aristizabal of Amecol Construction, Dan Farrell of Lost Cities Restorations, Joe Galvin of Home Restoration Painting, Jamillah Green of United Mechanical Contracting, Dave Hill of Bricks, Sticks & Stones, Khallidah McQueen of Quality First, and Peter A. and Al Szalay of A&B Light Heat & Power.
The Albright-Knox show, running until May 12, marks the culmination of Maher’s residency at the museum, but he is hoping to turn the project into something much bigger.
“In some ways, the house is about making visible those less visible city features and, in so doing, finding another city. It reflects, but it also finds the new, in my view,” Maher said. “I’m interested in eventually thinking about this whole project as a kind of center for the urban imaginary.”