Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 black and white and color works (including 1 set of 117 images as one grid installation) and 1 sculpture, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a divided gallery space on the second floor of the museum and as banners (2) in the Great Hall. The works are generally a mix of gelatin silver and chromogenic prints (many face mounted to plexi), although a daguerreotype, a platinum print, an Artforum spread, inkjet prints, and polymer on canvas works are also included. All of the works were made between 1990 and 2014. The show was organized by Doug Eklund. (Installation shots below.)

A companion exhibit entitled Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection (here) is on view around the corner in a series of three small rooms; it contains roughly 60 photographs and 11 paintings/sculptures drawn from the permanent collection. (The last two installation shots document a portion of this companion show.)

Comments/Context: The bulbous rope and canvas sculpture that spreads its hulking mass in the contemporary photography galleries at the Met is a smack-in-the-face signal that Piotr Uklański’s show of photographs isn’t going to be what we’ve come to expect in this space. It’s like a giant’s globular eyeball popped from the socket, left to leer at us, encroach on our space, and generally make us uncomfortable. As exhibition metaphors go, it’s actually quite apt – Uklański’s photography is mostly about looking and reacting (often with morbid exaggeration), rather than standard camera work, and the twisted bulk feels like it’s looking at us, instead of the other way around.

The show gets off to an unusually insipid start with a large group of color works from Uklański’s series The Joy of Photography. Using a 1979 Kodak manual for amateur photographers as a guide, he has recreated a mind numbing array of banal photographic clichés, from the waterfall and the sunset to the nighttime city and the swirled oil slick, printed large and glossy to hold the wall. As a conceptual critique of appropriation, with Uklański appropriating (and faithfully recreating) styles of mundane imagery rather than reusing original pictures themselves, the images seem deadened by their own arch foolishness; even if their ironic inversion is indeed the point, their “inside photography” intellectual cleverness is short lived at best.

Compared to these trifles, Uklański’s The Nazis is a blow-your-hair-back powerhouse. Hung on the back of the dividing wall, the work gathers together a dizzying array of appropriated headshots of movie and television stars playing the roles of Nazis. Its caricature exaggerations of evil, in the form of scars, scowls, eye patches, and gruff stares, as then applied to often handsome and famous actors in crisp uniforms, are satisfyingly dissonant and conflicted. Here Uklański is bold, reactionary, and smartly absurd, recasting the horrors of Nazism inside our own distorting pop culture machine. The work is simultaneously insulting and ridiculous, and unforgettable on both counts.

Much of the rest of the show feels like a series of photographic reactions, often with a dark edge. He reacts to Polish politics by staging large scale aerial gatherings that recreate the head of Pope John Paul II (using soldiers) and a dissolving Solidarity logo (in a shipyard). He reacts to the art world with an ad in Artform depicting his own wife’s bare bottom, playing on her name (Alison Gingeras) and Lynda Benglis’ famous dildo ad from decades earlier. He reacts to sexualized pop culture via an image from his Pornalikes series, where an appropriated image of porn star looks haltingly like Michael Jackson (even down to the curled hair). And the entire salon style hanging of works at the end of the gallery feels like a selection of one-off riffs, homages, and reworkings, from the reinterpreted Dali/Halsman nude skull to various interrupted faces. (This grouping actually makes a nice segue to an adjacent exhibit of diverse works that Uklański has selected from the Met’s permanent collection – once again he is reacting/choosing, just with a different set of possible inspirations.)

Whenever an artist gets categorized as a “bad boy” (a label that has often been applied to Uklański), satire and sincerity can get inextricably combined, often in the guise of attention grabbing stunts. This wide ranging survey of Uklański’s forays into photography feels populated by these kinds of calculatingly extroverted artistic statements. While many of these knowing gestures fall somewhat flat, when he does get it right, as with The Nazis in particular, his signature blend of irony and insight can be striking.

Collector’s POV: This is a museum show so there are, of course, no posted prices. Piotr Uklański is represented by Gagosian Gallery in New York (here). Uklański’s photographs have only been intermittently available at auction in the past decade. Recent prices for single images have ranged from roughly $5000 to $240000, while the suite of Nazi headshots has topped $1000000.

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. 28 of ... Read on.

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