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With a multicolored palette and a medium often associated with elementary school art classes, New York–based artist Piotr Uklański creates startling large-scale collages of calamities: hurricanes, lightning storms, nuclear bomb tests. The clash of cheery colors with destructive scenes gives his images a subversive, dissonant power. At first glance they look like bright, pleasant landscapes — until you realize they’re about war and death.
Now showing at Manhattan gallery Nahmad Contemporary, Piotr Uklański: Collages features the Polish-born provocateur’s lesser-known works made from torn paper. “I like the contrast of beauty and something that symbolizes a complete disaster,” Uklański tells Hyperallergic. “That paradox isn’t my invention, but I think that the collages with dark subject matter instead of sunsets are my most successful ones.”
Uklański, who says he’s attracted to “lo-fi visual extravaganza with minimal production,” is best known for painting, sculpture, film, installation, and performance, as well as photography, some of which was recently shown at the Met. In 2003 he started painting large sheets of Lanaquarelle paper with brilliantly colored gouache — hot pinks, lemon yellows, and acid greens — then tearing and gluing the bright shapes together. Collage is a medium he thinks is often taken less seriously than others, and his choice of violent subjects aims to challenge this. “People look down on paper — they think it’s a less precious material than paint or photography,” he says. “I don’t really know where that comes from. It’s not exactly easier to make collages. But there’s a little bit of prejudice [against the medium],” despite the fame of, say, Henri Matisse’s cut-outs.
Uklański drew some inspiration from Matisse, as well as other 20th-century collage masters, but the works in this show were more directly influenced by low-budget graphic ads he saw as a child growing up in Communist Poland. “They were these cheaply made graphics advertising tourist attractions — posters telling you to visit the mountains of Poland, the covers of cheap novels — which used this immediacy of torn paper to create landscape images, or the illusion of an image,” he says.
Instead of crisply scissored cut-outs, Uklański uses the ragged white edges of torn paper, which collagists generally hide, as the visual focus of his pictures. “Tearing paper is a bit of a violent gesture,” he says, and the tears convey an immediacy and tactility that other mediums often can’t. These bright, ripped white bits become textural metaphors: They create cracked skies in his images of lightning bolts, plumes of smoke coming off mushroom clouds, and the brilliant halo of a rising sun.
Piotr Uklański: Collages is on view at Nahmad Contemporary (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 28.
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