Saturday, October 29, 2011
Attila Richard Lukacs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
First, my confession: Growing up in rural Ontario, I had no idea that there was such a thing as Canadian culture (to the degree to which one can claim there is indeed such a thing) beyond what I saw on the CBC or CTV. When I was about ten years old, I started hearing about this guy, Attila Richard Lukacs, who did huge paintings of naked skinheads beating and fucking each other. This caused quite a bit of controversy around the Ottawa valley when his work popped up at the National Gallery. Along with the 'Voice of Fire' fiasco, this was my introduction to what art in Canada was. It took a few years for me to discover, to my dismay, that the art scene in this country wasn't remotely that interesting most of the time. However, these two visceral events were, in a very real sense, the high (or low) points for art here. Since then, things have been fairly inert.
Lukacs doesn't show a lot in Canada. That doesn't stop him from being in some sense a kind of legendary figure. Maybe it even helps. He's admired for his technique. Even if you hate what he paints, it's hard to deny that he's a great painter. He's got more technique at his disposal than most, regardless of the genre. But this is balanced with thematic concerns that leave people unsettled. His work is political in a way that most contemporary art never succeeds in being. Instead of sinking to the level of critique, he creates a fully realized utopia, or heterotopia as Eugenio Filice argued in his thesis on the subject (a). It's a world that comes as the culmination of a long history of alternate worlds. Patches of Petronius, De Sade and the fantastical all male islands that popped up in the counterculture of the Enlightenment are at the back of his work. In his world, women do not exist: there is no Otherness. An Eden without Eve. It's a total nightmare for dialecticians. For that matter, femininity doesn't exist and its absence leaves no trace of void. The work overflows everywhere. Even the blacks in his paintings seem full and as resonant as the gold. But with this utopia, he isn't shying away from the world. Even with angels and spirits scattered among his landscapes, the contemporary world is never far away, just re-calibrated along the lines desire dictates.
In the massive IKEA store that current Canadian art tends to resemble, not many have followed his example. Evergon and Bruce LaBruce obviously cross over similar terrain, though not as followers. Both are far less ambitious and less successful: Evergon because he never reverses the zone of exclusion and LaBruce because his fanaticism is only an ironist's. What Attila does isn't ironic. There isn't any distance in his work, just perversion. He and LaBruce perfectly illustrate the two sides of a great Canadian pathology: One espousing skepticism when he is really a fanatic of banality, the other expressing fanaticism when he is really a skeptic. A pervert has to believe and love because they don't really believe. There is no ground for belief and no height for irony. Rather, there is just a glamorous brutality.
As with Genet, Lukacs' work is about ritual and intended to invite ejaculation as much as contemplation. It isn't work that readily invites the much hallowed 'dialogue', that crutch of so much contemporary art and theory. Liberal critics sometimes put his work down to the representation of a sub class of the gay community. Mark Cheetham has suggested this and Scott Watson (b) has attempted, somewhat shakily, to situate his work in like manner. That's the easy route to take, but it avoids facing what's really at play which is the remarkably realized construction of personal (though never esoteric) mythology. In a very real way, he accomplishes what high Modernism failed to do and what postmodernism has mourned, or celebrated, for failing.
It would be a mistake to say that his work is fascistic, although it's hard to know what else to call it with its overt celebration of violence as an expression of love, of military ritual and of beautiful young men. (Or maybe it is exactly fascistic in the sense that Žižek sometimes speaks of?) You can argue for a certain political reading of his work, particularly in light of the war paintings he's done over the last 8 or 9 years, that makes his work a little more palatable. However, much like reading Pasolini's Salo as a harrowing indictment of Fascism, the seams come undone unless you're really desperate to believe it. Whatever is at stake, it's certainly a far cry from any kind of order, which is never sought. Instead, there is a constant appeal to crumbling and mutation. Without duality, there can only be a continual doubling and a string of metamorphoses. But the cry is just as far from being truly reconcilable to liberality or the kind of pluralistic and sentimental discourses favored in the art world.
He takes on art history with verve, though never garishly. He does Velazquez. The "Rokeby Venus" becomes an afternoon's transgression, complete with decaying flowers. In doing this, he returns to the blatantly pornographic function the Velazquez originally had before it was torn away for museum use. Turn your eyes and you face his repainting of David's incomplete "The Death of Joseph Bara." A fascinatingly homoerotic image of political martyrdom in its original, under Lukacs' hands, the image changes only subtly, losing some of its suppleness but gaining something else – a less prosaic sense of voluptuous doom as the details of the scene vanish and the body becomes more focal. The body becomes the sole context. His diptych "William and Bill" overtly asks the viewer to 'fuck it' and does a cock tease. There is no duality to the diptych but a sense of the interchangeable, like an optical illusion that reveals that what was hidden is what is actually there.
His investment in iconic figures also has a religious bent. He takes on the Archangel Michael, reinventing him as a musclebound 'Mike' in a kind of colossal phone sex ad. He vanquishes the Damned, here cast as Uncle Sam, a rabbi, a sultan and sailor. To his side are a pair of skinhead angels erecting their ladder to Heaven. Gold shines along the background. The tiny squares of patterned gold frequently popped up during a certain period of his work. The squares are never firmly gridded. There's something casual and deliberately disorderly, almost chaotic about them. Their application seems consciously clunky. The colour of paint seeps through in gaps. A grid is only ever superimposed. This is brought out even more in one of the paintings showing a hard assed angel overlooking a peak. The rocks are painted with such deliberation that they drive home the way that the gold is a kind of collapse of the grid into luminescent formlessness.
What's at stake in his use of art historical references is not an attempt to make himself look clever or give himself a slightly transgressive form of authority. As Robert Enright once said of him (c), he rewrites the master narrative of art history 'with all the chicks removed'. What this amounts to, in practice, is a wedding night for catamites where the offspring is a donkey: a large cocked and sterile monster of nature. (One large painting in the show has the word 'catamite' written across the top.) It is not an art of Evil any more than of Good, but of their impossibility. There is an ethos in his work, but it is that of the sterile, of that which can not be part of the moral order. All things come and arrive at their nothingness as the dispersions of fuck without end.
The young men which he paints are all engaging in some form of ritualized violence which is heavily invested with libido. This is true whether they are quietly lurking in black, marching in military parade or stomping on the throats of their enemies. In "David and Goliath," a set of young men seem to engage in an intifada as smoke burbles behind them. Lukacs isn't simply romanticizing these figures. If he were, it might be hard to explain why Goya's dog is peering out at the bottom of the canvas. In fact, the dog's head, which I take to be an avatar for Lukasc in place of the usual monkey, has a double in the image. His name is spelled out on the pimped out belt buckle of one of the young men in the style of the lettering for a radical Islamist group. His investment is always in the pants of rebellion.
Out in the open, the pants and uniforms of his idealized models receive the attention. His skinhead portraits are fashion ads done like a Gainsborough. His nudes - in bleak interiors or destroyed and vague landscapes - have a radically different space though. The crumbling grid or the abyss of black. His use of black is unique and startling. It possesses a hallucinatory degree of subtle shifting and delicacy. Lukacs has always insisted that he's emulated Caravaggio over the Flemish masters. For reasons more complicated than I'm willing to get into here, this is important for the way that he articulates the figure, giving it more of a totemic than narrative quality when they encounter these negative fields. But the turn to the Classical example of Caravaggio has another fetish aspect that provides a fuller form of sexualization. The curves of the body are extended. However, it should be noted, that his is a Classicism that has been wounded and dragged through the Cloaca Maxima rather than perched in a clean position to have a perspective on things.
There's little depth in most of his paintings. There's a remarkable flatness that verges on what one finds in the collage based paintings of Max Ernst, but takes as much inspiration from the tradition for erotic miniatures in India. He has referred to this in interviews as a product of his layering process. In many of the paintings ("Koo Coo Kachoo Mrs. Robinson") this is clearly evident. Within the rigidly mannerist compositions, he fills each shape and line with oscillating textures and patterns. If there is little sense of recession, there is an excess production of surfaces, each of which manages to have its own pulse. They aren't always harmonic. There's a gaudiness to some of them which verges on the campy at times, but they are always full, livid. This comes out even more when contrasted with the the abstract direction he's been flirting with. There's one purely abstract piece on display and it is unimpressive. This is only buttressed by the fact that the backgrounds and details of so much of his figurative work show so much attention to grain, to texture, to blending, to the careful exploitation of reflective qualities and density that it puts most purely abstract painting to shame. There's something disturbingly flat and exhausted about his abstract work: a dullness. It lacks libido. Suitably, it's dominated by a bland grey and cheap silver.
The show could be criticized for being a little tame in terms of the choices for display. This may have been intentional (no one I spoke to at the gallery could tell me). There is not a single erection or an ounce of scat, not a swastika, a beating or a sacrificial throat slitting anywhere to be seen. Even monkey anuses are curiously absent. All the same, in the three hours I spent at the exhibit, only about twenty other people wandered through, usually for only a minute or so, often laughing at the sight of naked men, doing their best to ignore them or ushering their children away. The guide for the tour group that drifted by made light of how discomforting penises on display were and concentrated almost exclusively on the references to Christian iconography that were nearly omnipresent. In fact, it was this particular iconic streak in Lukacs - as opposed to the equally frequent penchant for the cliches of socialist realism, or the more important channeling of the history of the sodomite in art - that the show was largely organized around. But even with all of that, the gallery deserves kudos for displaying the work so well. The walls were painted in varying blacks, greys and blues and the paintings spread across three well-sized rooms that managed to be neither too grand nor too intimate.
Attila Richard Lukacs
Art Gallery of Hamilton
(a) Felice's Figurations of ethics, configurations of power: Michel Foucault, Attila Richard Lukacs, and the New Painting offers a useful starting point but finishes just when it was getting going. One of the only lengthy treatments of the painter, it gets bogged down in too much Foucault and an attempt to relate Lukacs to General Idea which strangely fails to take into account his brief sojourn into the realm of performance art and zine creation.
(b) Cheetham outlined this in a lecture I attended. Watson makes his moves in the essay contained in Lukacs' Polaroids book. It would be useful to read this through Gary Indiana's analysis of Salo, particularly in light of LaBruce's Skin Gang.
(c) In the documentary on Lukacs Drawing Out The Demons.