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Transatlantic artist shows his love of Caravaggio and skinheads
At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is a large monolith orbiting near Saturn’s moon Iapetus. When astronaut Dave Bowman finally gets near it, he tells mission control, “The thing’s hollow . . . it goes on forever . . . and, oh my God--it’s full of stars!”
Similarly, orbiting your local bookshop is a massive object, and as you approach it, you might realize that it also goes on forever (thankfully), and that it is full of, well, Polaroids.
The book is Polaroids: Attila Richard Lukacs and Michael Morris, published through a partnership between Arsenal Pulp Press, Presentation House Gallery of North Vancouver, the Art Gallery of Alberta and Illingworth Kerr Gallery, is a collection of work by Lukacs, a major gay Canadian artist.
The massive, huge, monumental (did I mention it’s very, very large?) hardcover runs $55, but it’s absolutely worth every penny. Instead of focusing on Lukacs’ paintings, it instead is the chronicle of an exhibition of the Polaroid photos he took as studies for paintings over the years.
After graduating from art school in Vancouver, he went to Berlin for a decade, then spent a few years in New York City before returning to British Columbia. During that time, he photographed dozens of young men, most of them regular skinheads he found on the streets of the cultural capitals of Europe and North America.
Artist Michael Morris, his one-time mentor and longtime friend, was given free reign to organize two decades’ worth of these model studies into an exhibit, creating three-by-four blocks of photographs.
These pictures, coupled with three essays about the Lukacs and Morris and an interview with the former, comprise one of the most ambitious art books to ever come across my desk.
There are gatefold pages, for Pete’s sake! You know, the thing that would be called a centerfold if it were in a magazine, but they are in different places in the book and are not simply some extra-long photograph of a naked gamine.
The essays and interviews alone could be separated out into their own art journal, providing biographical, historical examinations of Lukacs and Morris, where their work fits into the movements of 20th century art, and how all of it came together.
“In Lukacs’s art, young men, skinheads mostly, populated this world in various states of inversion, transformation, and decay,” author Michael Turner writes in his essay, “In Advance of a Broken Army.”
“Rendered in deep chiaroscuro over large canvases, these men (naked and clothed, alone or in groups) stood on the verge of ritual, in dungeons or in ruins, surrounded by monkeys, pigs, totalitarian paraphernalia--a broken army of disenfranchised youth.”
Turner points to the Axis of Evil stretching from Ronald Reagan’s White House to Margaret Thatcher’s 10 Downing Street residence, pointing out that Reagan’s political allies referred to AIDS with “the near-Biblical term ‘Gay Plague.’ ”
He notes that Gertrude Stein, “in an attempt to explain her writing, makes a case for generational change not as a change of elements but a change in the relationships between elements. This change applied to art when Morris arrived in England to learn that painting had once again exhausted itself, giving rise to designer painters like Ruscha and Andy Warhol, both of whom worked in graphic media.”
When Lukacs arrived in Germany, representational painting, Neo-Expressionism and other movements were picking up, which returned that pre-Warholian status quo to the art world.
It was his desire to paint realistic images that spurred his use of the Polaroid camera.
“I went to life classes in art school and I saw what the models had to do for an hour, and it’s quite strenuous,” he said in an interview with reviewer Vince Aletti. “And if you’re going to ask someone to do that for an hour, you can’t have every kind of pose, like in some of those art-historical references, which often involve action. It’s just too strenuous to hold, unless you’re propping them up somehow.”
And that’s where the Polaroids come in. Instead of holding a pose for an extended period of time, a half-hour, an hour, a model need only hold it long enough for Lukacs to push a button five or six times before it’s on to the next pose.
Readers can see that immediately reflected in some of the few paintings included in the book, generally illustrating the essays. There, that’s the skinhead who was giving the Nazi salute in Berlin, now here he is as part of a bucolic outdoor scene with another skinhead saluting the rising sun.
Lukacs’ homages to earlier painters like Degas and Caravaggio, whose Young Spartans Exercising and The Calling of Saint Matthew were amalgamated into the Communist skinhead vs. neo-Nazi skinhead The Young Spartans Challenge the Boys to Fight, are striking images, replete with an almost innocent sexuality.
Even the Polaroids themselves, as filled as they are with bare buttocks and placid penises, seem completely innocent, as though challenging the viewer to find the erotic value in them. Oh, they are certainly erotic, but they are coy young men.
Most of Lukacs’ models in Berlin were heterosexual, much of his work done before the skinhead style became just another aspect of gay masculine clone culture. In his New York photos, there is a greater indication that his models might be gay, or might not. There is an ambiguity there that was less visible in the German photographs, even when there were two naked men together.
Regardless of their sexual orientation, or state of (un)dress, there is a beauty, a joy in it all, the unbound ecstasy of a young man on his own away from home for the first time, free to be what he wanted, as he wanted. Would that every young man could have as good a mentor and friend as Michael Morris, a boyfriend like Michael Danger, the manager of Oranienbar in Berlin. All of these elements made up Attila Richard Lukacs, and all of Attila Richard Lukacs goes into his art.
Don’t think twice about the $55 price tag on the book. The only concern you should have is remembering to bring a shopping cart so you don’t throw your back out carrying the darned thing to the car.
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