“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” said George Carlin. Words to live by when looking at much contemporary art, the phrase is especially useful when considering two concurrent exhibitions at the Met that feature Polish artist Piotr Uklański —”Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs” and “Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects From the Met Collection.” Contrived skepticism rules in one; the other pulses with vibrant energy.
An artist known for working in a wide variety of media — including photography, film, installation, fiber art, resin paintings, and collage — Uklański, who was born in Poland in 1968, represents a popular trend among artists of his and subsequent generations. The Met terms his anti-style “strategic cynicism,” elaborating that the artist generally “invests overlooked and exhausted styles with new meanings.” What the museum’s PR actually means to say is that Uklański can’t pass up poking fun at art clichés — usually in a manner loaded with in-crowd insincerity.
Cutting-edge calculation or clever cul-de-sac? If recent New York art fairs are any indication, the question evidently shadows Uklański’s work and that of several cohorts of global artists. In the hands of younger imitators, Uklański’s cool irreverence quickly turns sophomoric. Yet Met curator Douglas Eklund, who organized the artist’s show of photographs at the museum, insists Uklański “uses cynicism the way a painter uses a paintbrush.” But what to make of the fact that Uklański proves a livelier curator than an artist at the Met? As with other serial quoters, this part-time shutterbug’s art only really comes alive when he’s busy tweaking others.
Take part one of Uklański’s museum double feature. The first-ever survey of the artist’s photography, the Met’s show brings together 31 works, half of them from his Irma Rombauer–inspired series “The Joy of Photography” (1997–2007) — a set of photo prints that drolly imitate the look and subjects of a 1979 how-to-Kodak manual. The camera, and its counterfeit candy-color effects — as seen in pictures of a misty waterfall and a postcard sunset, for instance — blithely present cornball versions of the photographic sublime. As with Justin Bieber’s Comedy Central roast, kitsch is both the butt of the joke and the star of the show. Uklański’s exhibition also resembles Mad Men. If the artist’s pictures recall the series’ final invocation of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” then Uklański channels Don Draper. His is the last laugh on the booboisie as they snap selfies in front of his truculent images.
If you’re exhausted by this artist’s shooting morbidly obese fish in a barrel, then part two of the Met’s twin bill will be more to your liking. An installation of 71 artworks from 11 of the museum’s curatorial departments, the artist’s selection of sexed-up grotesqueries from the institution’s vast storehouse of objects proves a history lesson in man’s obsession with screwing and mortality. Built around twin themes that Dr. Freud psychologized as Eros and Thanatos — the life and death drives — the display thrives precisely where Uklański’s photographic exhibition grows tiresome. Unlike skewering museum visitors, sex and death remain two human arenas where bad faith is not merely hip, but welcome.
Fueled by his longstanding interest in taboo and marginal representations, Uklański begins at civilization’s beginning, with a gorgeous thirteenth-century-B.C. yellow jasper fragment of an Egyptian queen’s face. From there the show glides through the ages in rhyming forms: lips repeat, as do intertwined bodies, skulls, arms, eyes, guns, penises, and buttocks — the last of which the critic Kenneth Tynan asserts are the human body’s nearest approach to abstract art. There’s no letup in the show’s two packed rooms. Uklański’s exhibition presents a full-on orgy of art, complete with parental advisory.
While a number of famous works get the invite — among them a naked Venus from Lucas Cranach the Elder and Robert Capa’s photo of a Spanish Republican soldier being shot — Uklański’s preferences run to the outré and the perversely less prominent. His Met treasures include a bronze cast of Modigliani’s death mask, an August Sander portrait of an SS officer, and an absinthe-tinged self-portrait of Picasso being fellated like a rock star. Yet best in this show, hands down, goes to Sarah Goodridge’s keepsake-size watercolor of her luminously rosy breasts. (The museum had to take the tiny piece off view last month; a spokeswoman explains that “the medium (watercolor on ivory) was too fragile to be out for the full run of the show.”) Painted in the early nineteenth century for her purported lover Daniel Webster — the statesman whose dour statue can be found only a few blocks away in the park — it doesn’t merely advertise of the potency of sex. This luscious gem celebrates the power of making art like you mean it.