Emerging in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Piotr Uklański has created a provocative and expansive body of work that defies categorization. He has engaged in nearly all forms of visual media such as installation, large-scale paper reliefs, tie-dye paintings, textile based immersive sculptures, resin-based sculptures and paintings, photography, performance and a feature-length film, Summer Love. For this monographic presentation at the Bass Museum of Art, Uklański has appropriated the slang term of ESL (English as a Second Language) as a unifying title for this exploration of his protean work.
While the notion of “second language” makes a reference to Uklański’s foreign birth, the application of this theme in the Bass Museum of Art show transcends the literal understanding of his status as an immigrant in America. With the exception of two works in the exhibition’s opening gallery—a tie-dyed American flag Untitled (Priceless), 2012 and Untitled (T-Shirt), 2002 an origami folded US dollar bill note —this exhibition does not uniquely focus on the themes of identity politics. Instead, Uklański proposes the notion of ESL as a broad interpretative metaphor for his iconoclastic art practice.
ESL features a wide-ranging selection of Uklański’s “meta-paintings”—or pictorial works that challenge the conventional definition of painting. Using a distinctive range of unconventional materials such as ceramic pottery, pencil shavings, torn paper, embroidery, resin or dyed textiles as his palette, Uklański makes works that purposefully reference the canon of Modernist painting without reproducing the methods or specific subjects of that mainstream iconography. This overview of Uklański’s diverse art practice illustrates the underlying analogies between his use of specific artistic vernaculars and a non-native speaker’s unorthodox use of grammar or awkward pronunciation in using a second language.
As Uklański has explained, “My work takes up the ‘dialect’ of fiber art or the ‘idioms’ of Art Informel, Abstract Expressionism or Color Field painting quite deliberately. Instead of trying to assimilate or hide the markers of my difference—whether in terms of my own ‘heavy accent’, or the idiosyncratic aesthetic of my art practice—ESL metaphorically celebrates moments of cultural and artistic disconnect in my work.”
Made especially for the Bass Museum of Art, the exhibition culminates with a new monumental scale fiber art sculpture. Fashioned from Untitled (Story of the Eye) takes the form of an abstracted, giant eyeball that is fashioned from layers of dyed rope, fiber, macramé and embroidery. This work synthesizes Uklański’s ongoing interest in craft practices and aesthetics of the fringes of Modernism while also suggesting the seminal role of visuality in his work. Like the Georges Bataille novella it references, this ocular allusion carries an erotic evocation that provides a theatrical and suggestive conclusion to the exhibition.
Piotr Uklański was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1968. He lives and works in New York and Warsaw. His work has been featured in recent 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? (PalazzoGrassi, Venice, 2006), Territorio Livere (26 São Paulo Biennale, São Paulo, 2004), Piotr Uklański (Kunsthalle Basel, 2004), Dreams and Conflicts: TheViewer’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, Knight Curatorial Fellow.