Attila Richard Lukacs | Creative Muscle, Hamilton Magazine, 2011

Creative Muscle

AGH’s Lukacs survey ranges from figurative to abstract and beyond

Hamilton Magazine
Fall 2011

Range of Motion, 1990, oil and gold leaf on canvas (Detail)

Attila Richard Lukacs is a man, but he’s also a myth – and his dramatic arc is too good a story not to tell. It begins the moment he graduates from Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and relocates to Berlin, where he starts cranking out impressively large, confusingly sympathetic portraits of often naked neo-Nazi punks and military cadets. These works are enthusiastically received at the Cologne Art Fair in 1989, and followed by major exhibitions in Germany as well as at the Power Plant in Toronto and Vancouver’s Diane Farris Gallery. By 1996, Lukacs’ works are valued upwards of a hundred thousand dollars, the National Gallery has eight in their permanent collection and Elton John owns five. He relocates to New York City with the intention of continuing this upward momentum – but, as legend goes, nothing happens.

Well, not quite nothing. New York galleries are only fleetingly interested, critics accuse him of no longer painting up to par and, by the end of a five-year stint, he’s blown off most of his dealers and is a self-confessed raging drug addict (if you have the stomach, the documentary Drawing out the Demons chronicles his final drugged-out days in NYC). Lukacs has claimed that his descent into drugs was part of an intentional reboot of his artistic self. Following New York, he recuperates in Maui before returning to Canada in 2005, establishing himself in a massive studio space in Vancouver so he can start painting big heroic things again. Birth, death, rebirth, homecoming, transcendence: What artist in their right mind wouldn’t love to have a backstory like that?

Trouble is, how do you get beyond such a colourful reputation? How do you move past the body of work that made you into an international figure? For Lukacs, it seems, you experiment, and paint as widely as you are able. According to his critics, Lukacs has painted well and painted poorly – but, more to the point, he always seems to paint. Now there seems to be so much more to him than the classically rendered portraits of punks and extremists that blasted him into the limelight. Now we have Lukacs the photographer, Lukacs the political allegorist, Lukacs the abstractionist, Lukacs the portraitist, the floral painter. Lukacs the restless reinventor, the everevolving, ever-changing painter. Are these different styles of painting all successful in their own right? Can he reclaim the glory that was his in the ’90s? Does he want to? Is he more interesting if he doesn’t want to?

These are good questions to roll around in your mind while attending the Lukacs show this fall at the AGH. It’s not a show of his most iconic work, but neither is it a single series of recent work. Instead, it’s a wide array of painting taken from over 20 years of collecting by longtime friend and patron Salah J. Bachir. It’s an opportunity to compare and contrast the artists’ multitude of voices, perhaps the first such opportunity in a public gallery.

I had a brief conversation with Melissa Bennett, the AGH’s Curator of Contemporary Art, who is putting together this exhibition. Bennett has been at the AGH not even two years, and I asked her if tackling Lukacs was at all daunting. I was curious how a curator attacks a show about such a colourful personality as Lukacs, and what goes into staging a show whose works are drawn from a single collector.

“What’s daunting about this exhibition is just how formidable Lukacs’ reputation is, particularly as a largerthan- life, emotional artist. As someone who wasn’t there as part of the scene during the ’90s, I want to be able to get it right… [because] everything he does, people pay attention. Regardless how high or low his reputation, people are always watching to see what he does next.”

“I don’t see a purpose to writing about his addictions,” she maintains. “I think there has been enough of that, too much focus on that. What appeals to me more is the heroic scale of his work, how dedicated he is to his work. He just seems like an artist who always wants to paint; you get this feeling that he paints or is thinking about painting, or pushing himself as a painter all the time.”

The genesis of this show stretches back to the Power Plant exhibition curated by Louise Dompierre in 1989. It was at this exhibition that Bachir was introduced to Lukacs, from which an enduring friendship and patronage was formed. Bachir, the president of Cineplex Media, has cemented a quiet reputation for himself for his philanthropy as well as an intense interest in contemporary art. His collections of Andy Warhol and Betty Goodwin, for example, have each been the focus of similar exhibitions in Ontario in the last decade.

In fact it was Bachir who approached Dompierre two years ago with the idea of doing an exhibition. Normally, when a collector approaches a public gallery to do an exhibition, there’s a motive at stake, some gambit to raise the profile and value of the work at hand. But Bachir’s reputation as a supporter of Canadian contemporary art, and the sheer magnitude of his collection easily trumped such concerns.

And what a collection it is. Of the over 50 Lukacs works owned by Bachir, the AGH will present more than 35 of them (they’ll also produce a lavish chronicling the entire collection). The exhibition features many large works from the ’90s, a few from a series of works which examine American military men, several portrait and floral studies, some works from the Arbor Vitae series (a black-on-white meditation on a single tree) and a half-dozen arrangements of Polaroid studies of his models. To cap it all off, there’s one pure abstract from a series launched this past year at Vancouver’s Winsor Gallery.

“One of the great parts of this experience was working with (Bachir),” Bennett recalls of the process. “He’s a really warm, encouraging, trusting man. He didn’t impose his will in any way. He just said, ‘You’re the gallery, you’re the curator: Go to it. So I tried to think of an exhibition that wasn’t a survey show, but also wasn’t a representation of a single body of work. Instead it’s Attila Richard Lukacs as seen through the eyes of Bachir, a glimpse of the artist through the eyes of someone who has maintained a constant interest in him.”

Bennett says she’ll avoid setting the works out in a chronology, but instead arrange them thematically and visually, which is smart, because there is a real opportunity here is to try and see how these different voices interrelate and inform each other. For example, the preparatory photos for his paintings, shot on squareformat Polaroid film, have a remarkable effect on the understanding on his larger, edgier portraits. These studies soften his work, pull it beyond the sensational and more into the art historical, make Lukacs seem less like a provocateur, and more of a rigorous craftsman. The Polaroids reminded me of Edward Muybridges’ stop-motion studies of a galloping horse. They suggest an almost scientific obsession with the minute variations of the flesh.

I Love You, 2000, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 104 x 48 inches

When you move from these photos into an appreciation of say, Nick or William and Bill (from 1998’s Detention series), what you see are initially defiant-looking portraits: military ephemera, shaved heads, business suits and more than enough exposed genitalia. But what ultimately gives the work its gravitas is Lukacs’ care with his painterly execution. He paints male stubborness with the same grandiose heft that Caravaggio would paint Saint Peter on the cross, with the same loaded restless energy of the naked flesh, and with the same reverence to the traditions of art and religion and visual storytelling. Because of this, his works haunt the imagination in a way that initially feels exploitive or immoral, but immoral in the sort of the way that Oscar Wilde would define it: “When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true.”

“Many of these big works seem active and inactive at the same time,” continues Bennett. “That inactivity gives the viewer a kind of freedom to step inside and engage with it as they need to. I’m sure there’s some potential for controversy; I’m sure there are people out there who will find an image of two coupling male nudes offensive. Nonetheless, what I think this exhibition will offer is a chance for people to see that the work is not simply sensational – that it is deeply intelligent, that it has direct ties to Renaissance art, that it is aesthetically fulfilling.”

And then there’s the abstract work, 2011’s Silver Garden, an amalgam of grey and silver cubes gently draining into one another, with a crudely hewn image of a fox in the right corner. This is easily the most incongruous painting in the exhibition, and there is a temptation to write it off as a bit of self-indulgence by Lukacs, not a painting so much as a declaration that he will not be boxed into any category.

But Bennett reminds me that the abstract is more connected to his oeuvre than one may think. She tells me it will be positioned beside an untitled work from 1991 showing two Doc-Martened youths wrestling against a stylized garden. Compare that to the two works and you realize that there is a kind of balance between abstract and figurative, between representation and process, between the mythic and the physical. Abstraction and representation are parts of every Lukacs work, part of a continuum that Lukacs has always occupied.

Maybe the purpose is not to love all the pieces, but simply to marvel at the restless energy of an artist who has devised a way to become incredibly diverse and prolific in his output. The exhibition is bound to be eccentric but, boy, it’ll be a fun puzzle to try and figure out.

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