New York

Wojtek Ulrich

Caelum Gallery

Polish-born Wojtek Ulrich is less a pioneer than a skillful explorer of familiar artistic paths. In his recent show, elaborate sculptural installations with deliberately antiquated materials evoked Miroslaw Balka’s rusted steel-plate sculptures while large color photographs with images derived from classical mythology called to mind the Starn twins’ collaged photographic works (with their references to Roman antiquity) and the aberrant physiognomy often found in the art of the Chapman brothers. Ulrich’s Name, 1996, a set of metal boxes containing images of bound naked people, recalled the almost identical boxed photographed nudes of Izabella Gustowska, an artist little known outside her native Poland.

For the carefully staged compositions seen in his photographic works, Ulrich draws from a complex classical iconography (typically charged with sexual ambiguity) that is rather at odds with the banal corporeality of his models. In Saint Sebastian, 1998, the nude figure appears—not as the traditional feminized male—but as a contemporary transsexual whose physicality is all too human. He/she seems to suffer more visibly from an awkward pose than from the three arrows dangling from his/her body. The artist replaces the torment and ecstasy typically conveyed in depictions of the martyr with a picture of discomfort and apathy. In Sebir, 1998, a female nude with three real-looking goat heads where her own would normally be looks both exotic and fake, like a young woman trying to disguise herself as a mythological underworld goddess. By allowing the unmediated “realness” of his figures to cut against the conventional mythological and religious imagery he evokes, Ulrich challenges the viewer’s expectations to estranging effect—the theatricality of which is heightened by the stagelke presentation of his photographs in heavy wood or metal box frames.

The most powerful work in the show was the nine-foot-long piece entitled The Boat, 1998: Five monitors were installed in a vessel (strung up with wire to the ceiling and hanging low in the gallery) whose wooden ribs were connected by tightly packed rows of whole dried fish. Face up inside this unusual-looking boat, the screens featured ninety minutes of silent footage showing various fish swimming in the ocean, their muted movements contrasting with the lifeless vessel. In the exhibition catalogue, Ulrich, speaking of his use of videotaped images in this work, stated, “We are running a risk of simply replacing the reality with yet another fiction. History and fiction may then be emerging as one thing.” Throwing in stark relief a set of contrasts between a host of visual representations—in one case the fish are somehow living yet artificial, in the other they are dead yet “real”—The Boat, with its formal simplicity and imaginative structure, gives elegiac form to the artist’s imbrication of reality and illusion.

Marek Bartelik