Art thrives in controversy; legends of artists are born this way. Think of Marcel Duchamp being derided in 1917 for submitting a signed urinal to a public art exhibition as Fountain, or the cries of disgust that greeted Manet’s Olympia at the Paris Salon of 1865. These moments in art are often moments of crisis, when our culture breaks out of its stasis to realise that something truly different is shaking it awake.
Image credit: Attila Richard Lukacs “St. Gerome”, n.d. 12 Polaroid photographs. Courtesy of the Artist
Attila Richard Lukacs and Michael Morris are both familiar with controversy in their artistic practice. Both investigated queer themes throughout the 1970s and 80s and Lukacs did so using violent skinhead imagery during the decline of East Germany. Both artists have witnessed a strong cultural shift around queer culture in their lifetimes and can reasonably claim to have had a hand in that shift.
It’s interesting, with this in mind, to look at Polaroids: Attila Richard Lukacs and Michael Morris, which just opened at the Art Gallery of Alberta. The exhibition is comprised of over 3000 individual Polaroids used as artistic studies for Lukacs large-scale historic paintings. Morris, a friend of Lukacs, becomes curator and collaborator, sorting and arranging a select number of the photos into panels of 12. The images are all of men, save for a mere 12 of a female model, and the models are predominantly Caucasian. The Polaroids function as documents – artifacts from an internationally recognized artist who has contributed work to the Canadian canon. Morris operates as an archivist and a monk, affectionately preserving Lukacs work, telling his story, building a temple to the icon.
Looking at an individual panel of photographs through Attila’s fingerprints, I see photographs that were carefully staged and lit. Lukacs has a keen understanding of the Polaroid film – how the light works, how the paper fades, and uses this to create a thick chiaroscuro effect. Known for his art historical references, Lukacs poses his models after works by Goya, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Carvaggio, to name a few. The clothes, when there are articles and the models are all very modern in their appearance, but Lukacs imbues the images with a painterly quality in composition, lighting and poses that cannot help but exude romance. The only indication that these images are from the last twenty years is the modern props included in the composition, such as wheelchairs, army boots, fatigues and syringes, and all the models have a fierce, militant look to them, with close-cropped hair, muscular bodies and a melancholy expression of obedience and submission.
Image Credit: Attila Richard Lukacs “Bad Dog” n.d.12 Polaroid photographs. Courtesy of the Artist
Zoom out, however, and your eyes dart fiercely around the room looking for something – anything to grab them and draw them in. There are 255 panels of the Polaroids, all arranged geometrically on the walls. There’s an occasional didactic panel, and five or six large scale paintings from Lukacs, but little else breaks up the space or draws the eye. It would almost be overwhelming, but it’s not a consistent effort and the distinct absence of any colour makes the exhibition feel just a little unfinished. The rich colour in each composition is not strong enough, to draw the viewer in, since each photograph is quite small. Lukacs uses a lighter palate in his paintings, so the larger works of art don’t have much presence in the space. As a shrine to Lukacs work, there needs to be a stronger presence of Lukacs professional history.
The paintings chosen to accompany the photographs show neither the breadth of Lukacs career nor his talent. If I didn’t know Lukacs’ and Morris’ work from other sources, I wouldn’t really get a sense of why this exhibition was so important. Some of Lukacs’ work from, the 1980s or early 90s would help give context to his work, and provide a chronological grounding point to tell the story of his process. This would also permit a more active role from Morris, as he would have entry points within the gallery space to respond to the works and provide a more dynamic curatorial voice (apart from his brochure contribution). Morris is a transparent presence as curator and collaborator, though he explains his working process in the curatorial brochure. Within this shrine, he needs his prayers, he needs his rituals; he takes the viewer into the space, but is reluctant to share his passion, to tell his side of the story, instead hoping you are just as overwhelmed by Lukacs talent as he is, that you just bask in the radiance of each individual panel.
Image credit: Attila Richard Lukacs “Alex with Scull” n.d. 12 Polaroid photographs Courtesy of the Artist
This experience seems so far removed from the cautionary signs warning you about art as you approach the gallery. The gallery has programmed a large queer contingent from the local community to speak to the controversial nature of this exhibition. If you’re familiar with art in Edmonton over the last year, you might wonder if this is necessary, if the work merits the cautionary approach that it’s received. While the gallery is bringing in some interesting speakers on the topic of museums and controversy, I feel themes of the museum and the personal archive are just as important, though less sensational. The sense that there is a cultural shift happening in this exhibition, that this marks a new chapter in art history is simply not present. It is other wise, a glowing insight into the work of two major Canadian artists.
- S.H. Edmonton