A Sly Wit: Piotr Uklanski at the Met
Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklanski Photographs and Piotr Uklanski Selects from the Met Collection, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 17 to August 16, 2015 (Uklanski Selects closes June 14)
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City
The soaring banners that greet visitors in the Metropolitan Museum’s Great Hall are “living photographs” by Piotr Uklanski, the subject and selector, respectively, of exhibitions currently on view. The banners reconstitute a work of his from 2007, Untitled (Solidarity) in which aerially shot images of red and white clad soldiers at the Gdansk shipyards spell out the name of the independent trade union, ‘Solidarnosz in one image while the same word is seen disintegrating, in the other, as three thousand soldiers spill away. 1990 was the year that Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland and Uklanski was able to immigrate to the United States.
Despite this theatrical flourish, Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklanski Photographs overall feels a bit thin in places, particularly in a clustering of early work.
The show opens with images from Uklanski’s series, Joy of Photography 1997-2007, where he appropriates and plays with ‘how to’ ideas of photography. By faithfully following step-by-step instructions to achieve the perfect photograph from a Kodak manual – resulting in colorful blobs of soft focus flowers, a chiffonade waterfall, a tropical setting sun – Uklanski critiques the utopian promise of self-expression available to all, His project remains conceptually interesting even though the eventual aesthetic outcome is utter visual ennui
If Joy of Photography implies a mistrust of photography as a means to an end, the work that follows, The Nazis (1998), questions film’s reliability as a source of historical representation. This is a floor to ceiling wall installation of looming close-ups of Hollywood actors that are the embodiment of the American heroic ideal: Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, William Shatner, even ‘ol’ blue eyes’ Frank Sinatra. To Uklanski, the volume of Second World War films speaks to a subconscious fascination and fetishization of the Nazi aura, portrayed in a sanitized and glamorous way. The American audience are to be kept safe and at a distance from the Holocaust reality by experiencing a dual consciousness, of a trauma, but appropriated and mediated by the faces of familiar stars.
In a nod to the infamous 1974 Artforum double page spread paid for by Lynda Benglis depicting herself nude, gloriously defiant and brandishing a dildo, Uklanski collaborated with curator Alison Gingeras on the piece ‘Untitled’ (GingerAss ) (2002). This portrays Gingeras, his partner, naked and lit from behind in a glamorous, erotic style that brings photographer Guy Bourdin to mind. Like Benglis, the artist paid for the image to appear in Artforum. Despite all the cheeky bravura however, their piece is compromised here by what seems to me a sheepish sentence within the wall text where the museum feels the need to tell us that Gingeras was “his romantic partner (they are now married).”
Benglis’s 1974 work was a sophisticated feminist critique, using her own body satirically on her own terms within a predominately male art context. Why should it make any difference whether they are now married, a fact offered in parentheses like an apologetic disclosure– as if the audience, after seeing a naked rear end, need reassurance that this couple still follow conventional societal norms? Such a patronising attitude offends the spirit of Benglis’s radical gesture and undermines Uklanski’s oeuvre.
Piotr Uklabski is known for heterogenous work ranging from large scale ceramic installations, fabric pieces, paintings, film and photography to his infamous relational aesthetic piece Untitled (Dance Floor) 1996 for Gavin Brown’s Broome Street space. It appears that this polymath has put together Piotr Uklanski Selects from the Met Collection with ease: it is by far the better of his two shows, compelling and engaging, evoking a pre-Internet, old-fashioned pleasure in making connections between disparate images and objects.
Using the themes of Eros and Thanatos, the “life force and death wish”, to guide his choices, Uklanski culled artefacts and images from eleven curatorial departments in a refreshing, occasionally shocking display. One gallery wall is hung with many of the photographic greats: Nadar, Alfred Steiglitz, August Sander, Francesca Woodman, Sally Mann, Martin Munkasci and Malick Sidbé are here, to name a few. Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier 1936, hangs nearby the surreal Laurie Simmons Walking Gun 1991, and a Pierre-Louise Pierson from around 1863-66, Games of Madness, of an elegant woman looking drolly through a small picture frame back at the viewer feels subversive yet so fresh
A sly wit is seen in a subtle repetition of patterns from different images: a tangle of lesbian’s legs hard at it, shadows of a man’s arms and legs, and the abstract close-up of a horse’s hip and thigh with leather and metal harness. One small painting hung so low one has to kneel to see it properly appears to be of a half dressed young boy who seems about ten lying on a bed while a woman, naked, her face hidden by long hair, fellates him. This is Picasso’s La Douceur, (The Pain) (1902). The ‘boy’ is in fact Picasso aged twenty-two, joking about orgasm and le petit mort. Painted over a hundred years ago, the sexuality and sexism are both still raw and palpable.
After the subtle and tonally muted photographs, Uklanski’s sculptural work, Untitled (Sacre Coeur), 2015, a visceral glistening heart in red resin, is a jarring experience. It is placed next to a cool, sleek yellow jasper Egyptian fragment of a mouth from around 1350 BCE. It almost works, her lips a wonderful contrast of ideas, temperament and form, but ultimately Sacre Coeur is too brash for her distinct, inscrutable, beauty.
Poignantly, near the end of the exhibition was a fragment of a right hand and forearm in marble, Greek, ca. 300 B.C. The written text stated: “this sculptural fragment may have belonged to Eros holding a bow or a torch “. It felt like amongst this gathering of talent from the era of photography, a hand was reaching out from the past.
Many thanks to Woman Around Town and Eleanor Foa Diestag for credited photographs above. We apologize for the absence of Polish accents on the artist’s name and titles, a problem we are trying to fix.