Contemporary art Exhibitions Fairs USA

It’s not what you say but the way that you say it

Piotr Uklanski’s show takes as its starting point English classes for migrants and the stigma of accents

Uklanski’s Untitled (T-shirt), 2002

As the world becomes more globalised and migration is an ever more commonplace phenomenon, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are now a familiar aspect of US education. These courses for non-native-speaking foreigners are an important introduction to the English language and to American culture. But for Piotr Uklanski, ESL also stand for his unusual, or “heavily accented”, art practice, and is the title of his mid-career survey at the Bass Museum of Art (until 16 March 2014).

Born in Warsaw in 1968, Uklanski studied painting at the Polish capital’s Academy of Fine Arts and moved to New York in 1991 where he studied for a photography MA at the Cooper Union School for Advancement of Science and Art. He created one of his best-know works, Untitled (Dance Floor), 1996, a disco interpretation of the minimalist grid, shortly out of art school, and it propelled him onto the international art scene. With solo exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum under his belt, and as part of the Gagosian Gallery’s stable of artists, Uklanski has been fully embraced by his adopted art market. And he is not a user-friendly artist. His 1998 work The Nazis, a series of 122 film stills portraying actors in military uniforms, provoked heated debate when it was first exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. In 2000, the work went on show at Warsaw’s Zacheta Gallery, where a Polish actor slashed with a sabre the images of four actors, including his own, dressed as Nazi officers. The actor said at the time that the show implied that he was a Nazi and promoted the Nazi cause.

Less controversially, the Bass Museum show explores the role of the outsider, as an immigrant and a non-mainstream artist. “He deals with a lot of issues that are very relevant for Miami, especially during the period of the art fair,” says Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the executive director and chief curator of the Bass Museum, and the curator of the show. “Miami is an international city, with people from Russia, Brazil, Cuba, etc. The show is not about focusing on any particular group, but more about what a contemporary city looks like,” she says. One of the highlights of the exhibition, according to Cubiñá, is a tie-dyed American flag, Untitled (Not For Sale), 2011. It shows his ongoing disregard for “serious art” by infiltrating Americana and consumer pop culture into hallowed museum halls, but also through his interest in craft technique. “In a very provocative way he establishes a dialogue between craft, design and art; the relationship between them and the position of craft in museums and the art market,” she says. The exhibition features older pieces and newly commissioned work, ranging from sculpture, painting, photography and installation.

• Piotr Uklanski: ESL, Bass Museum of Art, 2100 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, until 16 March 2014. Open Weds-Sun from 12pm to 5pm. www.bassmuseum.org

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