Piotr Uklański

In the artist’s book published to coincide with his exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, Piotr Uklański interviews his fellow Pole Roman Polanski, who recalls his attempts to prevent the 1968 Cannes Film Festival from being canceled despite the student uprisings in Paris. One inevitably connects the filmmaker’s determination to indulge in glamour while expressing support for the revolutionaries with Uklański’s own desire to seek out and communicate beauty while subjecting it to critical analysis. But where does a fascination with the romantic end and irony begin?

This was Uklański’s first major institutional solo exhibition, and it initiated Adam Szymczyk’s directorship of the kunsthalle. Artist and curator used the opportunity to orchestrate the heterogeneous nature of Uklański’s practice, questioning whether beauty can still be presented in an exhibition and experimenting with ways to frame a highly contemporary aesthetic in a traditional kunsthalle. The layout of the exhibition was determined by color, an idiosyncratic rationale but one that draws out both the highly constructed nature of the work and the connections between various media—photography, collage, painting, sculpture, and light installation. The viewer’s journey began with a new work made for the exterior wall of the building. A mosaic of white porcelain crockery, punctuated with flashes of red, Untitled (Kamikaze), 2004, set the tone for the exhibition’s baroque minimalism. A red antechamber displaying predominantly black-and-white works was followed by a large gallery centered on Untitled (Japan), 2004, a circular wall painting whose monochrome redness, suggesting a perversely flat imitation of Anish Kapoor’s sublime pigment sculptures, was echoed by variations of the same color in large-scale photographs and gouache collages. Depicting themes close to Uklański’s heart—planets, flowers, the elements, and phenomena of light—these were the most thought-provoking works in the exhibition. Communicating landscape in its purest form through a lowbrow aesthetic, the paintings treat abstraction and realism as surface elements to mix and match while the photographs catch the imagination precisely because they are kitsch.

A smaller, white-walled gallery was occupied solely by the minimal intervention Untitled (Dirty Sanchez), 2004. A hole in the wall contained within a drawing of a face, it replaced the high production values of the previous rooms with a quotation of graffiti, its staged rebellion continuing in the gray-painted gallery next door with three photographic self-portraits. Untitled (Skull), 2000, both references the daguerreotype technique and echoes Salvador Dalí’s self-portrait in its depiction of the artist surrounded by nude models. Together with Untitled (Self-Portrait with Mohawk), 2004, and Untitled (Self-Portrait as a Flame), 2004, it evoked a heroic punk persona that served to intensify the ambiguity between innocence and cynicism elsewhere in the exhibition.

After a room presenting landscape photographs and one large gouache collage, all dominated by tones of blue, Untitled (Cross-Eyed), 2001, came as a surprise as the sole work in the large white gallery, viewed diagonally from the entrance. Two circular wooden panels, like black inlaid pupils surrounded by the amber shades of their irises, transformed the room into a face that gazed back at the viewer. The subdued tones of this final work contrasted with the explosion of bright color elsewhere in the exhibition, while the structures in the marquetry created a final flourish to the formal pattern-making and symmetries that link Uklański’s works. Simulating lightning, the installation Untitled (Riders in the Sky), 2004, completed the choreography of the exhibition with a tongue-in-cheek destruction of the skylit gallery, the jewel in the crown of the kunsthalle. This dramatic gesture was impressively constructed but lacked the edginess necessary to make it more than just elegant.

Felicity Lunn