Emerging in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Piotr Uklański has created an expansive and provocative body of work that defies categorization. He has engaged with nearly all forms of visual media including installation, large-scale paper reliefs, tie-dye paintings, fiber art, resin paintings, photography, performance and a feature-length film, Summer Love.
English as a Second Language or ESL is the unifying concept for this in-depth exploration of Uklański’s protean work. While the title directly references Uklański’s own immigrant status in America, the broad scope of his work addresses more than the themes of identity politics. Instead, Uklański proposes ESL as an interpretative metaphor for his art practice. This exhibition highlights the relationship between a non-native speaker’s accent and idiosyncratic aesthetics, often found in Uklański’s “meta-painting” practice.
Working with unconventional materials and techniques, Uklański resuscitates artistic vernaculars from a number of various historical movements, adopting the idioms or “dialects” of Art Informel, Color Field Painting, Abstract Expressionism and Fiber Art, among others. He self-consciously immerses us in these visual languages through his artwork—paying homage to and simultaneously subverting a wide variety of artistic genres.
Beneath the beauty of Uklański’s seductive surfaces we find a conceptual core and a deep intellectual engagement with his subject matter. Rather than assimilating, obfuscating or concealing his art’s “accent,” idiosyncratic aesthetics or any other aspects of foreign-ness, Uklański celebrates these moments of cultural and artistic disconnect. Even when engaging with Pop or other widely recognizable genres, Piotr Uklański and his work deliberately do not shed the markers of their ESL status. Careful contemplation of what may appear to be exercises in style reveals a complex, contrary and somewhat troubling picture of our time.
For ESL, Uklański has created a striking and monumental fiber art sculpture, on view for the very first time at the Bass Museum of Art. Untitled (Story of the Eye) takes the form of an enormous abstracted eyeball that is fashioned from layers of dyed rope, fiber, macramé and embroidery. This significant new work synthesizes Uklański’s ongoing interest in craft and aesthetic practices from the fringes of Modernism, while also suggesting Feminist forms and the seminal role of visual pleasure. Like the Georges Bataille novella it references, this ocular allusion is impactful, erotic and theatrical. The installation’s dramatic effect recalls the visually expressive stage designs of Theatre of Death practiced by Polish artists of the 50’s and 60’s such as Tadeusz Kantor and Josef Szajna. The ominous aesthetic and use of charged materials were part of these artists’ immediate response to the lived experience of the Second World War. While the traditions of Modernist art and culture figure heavily in Uklański’s practice, this work makes manifest the ever-changing formal and material parameter’s of Uklański’s art.
Second Languages: Reading Piotr Uklański, the first comprehensive survey of Uklański’s work to date, has been published by Hatje Cantz and the Bass Museum of Art, on the occasion of this exhibition. It has been edited by Donna Wingate and Marc Joseph Berg and features essays by Daniel Baumann, Geoffrey Batchen, Francesco Bonami, Gavin Brown, Paulo Herkenhoff, Chrissie Iles, Jenelle Porter, David Rimanelli, Christian Scheidemann, Adam Szymczyk and Catherine Wood.
Piotr Uklański was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1968. He lives and works in New York and Warsaw. His work has been featured in exhibitions including Czterdziesci i Cztery (Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warsaw, 2012), Polska Neo-awangarda (Carlson Gallery, London 2012), 75th Annual Pułaski Parade, (New York, 2012), Discharge! (Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011), 2010 Whitney Biennial (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2010), Living in Evolution (Busan Biennale, Busan, 2010), Pop Life (Tate Modern, London, 2009), When Things Cast No Shadow (5th Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2008), Biało-czerwona (Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2008), Joy of Photography (Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, 2007), A Retrospective (Vienna Secession, 2007), Summer Love (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2007), Shapes of Space (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007), Summer Love (63 Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica di Venezia, Venice, 2006), Where Are We Going? (Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2006), Territorio Livere (26 São Paulo Biennale, São Paulo, 2004), Piotr Uklański (Kunsthalle Basel, 2004), Dreams and Conflicts: The Viewer’s Dictatorship (50th International Art Exhibition, Venice, 2003), Project 72 (MoMA, New York, 2000), Greater New York (P.S.1, New York, 2000), The Nazis (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2000), Manifesta 2 (Casino Luxemburg – Forum d’Art contemporain, Luxemburg, 1998), Life as It Should Be (Galeria Grodzka, Lublin, 1995).
Organized by Silvia Karman Cubiñá, Executive Director and Chief Curator, with assistance from Bryan Granger, Curatorial Assistant