New York

Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Skull), 2000, platinum print, 21 5/8 × 17 5/8 × 1 1/2".

Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Skull), 2000, platinum print, 21 5/8 × 17 5/8 × 1 1/2".

Piotr Uklański

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Skull), 2000, platinum print, 21 5/8 × 17 5/8 × 1 1/2".

The best of Piotr Uklański’s pictures are marked by an ironic morbidity: Untitled (Skull), 2000—one of thirty-one works in this Doug Eklund–curated survey of the Polish Conceptual artist’s photography—makes this clear. It is a striking photo, featuring naked male and female bodies arranged to form a skull, such that life and death, Eros and Thanatos, are inseparable, even interchangeable—impossible to distinguish. And if the work looks familiar, that is certainly no mistake. The picture is a near-exact copy of Salvador Dalí’s 1951 photograph In Voluptas Mors, but with an important difference: Uklański himself takes the central position.

This jokey act of appropriation and theatrical self-aggrandizement points to some of the larger themes present in Uklański’s work—about images, about performance, about the deceptive illusions and preoccupations of mass media. See, for example, The Nazis, 1998, an enormous grid, each of whose modules contains the image of an actor gussied up in National Socialist garb. Through this typological display of a Hollywood trope, the artist revels in the unsettling fact of our culture’s obsessive (and blithe) fascination with this political ideology. In the “Joy of Photography” series, 1997–2007, Uklański examines a different set of cultural banalities. For these works, he ironically remakes the kitschy, clichéd pictures in a how-to book for amateur photographers that was published by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1979. Several of his images from this series seize on the originals’ inherent romanticism: Untitled (Coconut Tree), 1998, for example, and Untitled (Blue Sky), 2004. The gestural look of the former and the Color Field look of the latter both read as references to painting, as does the insistent (“modernist”) flatness of both. For Uklański, it seems, effect, not medium, matters.

For many years, Uklański has been fascinated by the Polish conceptual and performance art of the 1960s and ’70s, producing a publication dedicated to the work of those artists and making art that appropriates their work. The revival of avant-gardism is inextricably tied to decadence, for decadence, as the theater critic Richard Gilman once wrote, “has always broadly meant a backward movement or sterile arrest.” In Uklański’s work, the sense of sterile arrest, not to say backwardnesss, is manifest in Untitled (Self-Portrait with a Mohawk, 1985), 2004: In 2004, the artist printed a 1985 image as a daguerreotype. Uklański’s revival of this obsolescent process points to a nostalgia for the aggressive “breakthrough” days when photography actually was avant-garde. (If Self-Portrait with a Mohawk brings to mind the neo-expressionist painter Rainer Fetting’s Self-Portrait as Indian, 1982, the older work lacks Uklański’s acid bite.) Meanwhile, the photo Untitled (Président du Groupe Artemis, Monsieur François Pinault), 2003, a “portrait” composed of a luridly psychedelic skull and crossbones, shows Uklański in his satirical prime. When “freshness has gone” and “bitterness remains,” philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once argued, “satire is the last flicker of originality.” At his best, Uklański makes bitter satire seem original and fresh. He gives it a certain aesthetic fervor, suggesting that arrested development is paradoxically an advance.

Donald Kuspit