Since their first meeting more than 20 years ago during the landmark “Young Romantics” exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Michael Morris and Attila Richard Lukacs have formed a bond that bridges the realms of mentorship and collaboration. Developing this bond after Lukacs moved to Berlin in 1986, Morris became a major influence in shaping Lukacs’ aesthetic through informal museum trips educating the young painter on the masters. Taking special note of Caravaggio’s rendering of light and the body’s capacity to hold tension, Lukacs would mature to inform his paintings by affecting the sexualized subject within situations of contemporary political strife.
Known for his large-scale paintings of marginalized masculinity from soldiers to skinheads, Lukacs elaborately staged countless Polaroid photographs as studio studies of the human form. On display along with five paintings spanning Lukacs’ career, “POLAROIDS” at the Art Gallery of Alberta features more than 3,000 photographs taken largely between 1986 and 1996.
With the demise of Polaroid film production, there is a tint of nostalgia to the medium itself that is present in this show. As documents and studies taken almost entirely from Lukacs’ time in Berlin, the photographs reveal that the specific emulsion of Polaroid film has greatly informed the use of light in Lukacs’ paintings. The artist meticulously staged each studio scene, and the combination of light on Polaroid and Lukacs’ classical compositions imbue each photograph with an iconoclastic portrait of the male body.
Seeing the photographic study alongside its representation in the finished painting, we are given a glimpse into Lukacs’ production process—which on its own does not merit an entire retrospective. Each Polaroid photograph is individually stunning, made all the more precious with faded fingerprints in a variety of colours smudged along each border. But collected as an entity of over 250 grids featuring thousands of photographs, “POLAROIDS” is simply bewildering.
Barely holding together as a coherent assemblage, the exhibit’s underlying subtext calls into question the role of the contemporary curator. Morris, who remains best known alongside Vincent Trasov as a co-founder of the Image Bank, later renamed the Morris/Trasov Archive, took up the precarious task of sorting through Lukacs’ collection of photographs and assembling a portion into 3-by-4 grids. Forming loose narratives of events, Morris organizes each grid by model and session rather than by mixing up different studio sessions. Thematic threads linking and progressing across 20 years of studio sessions are no longer apparent in this format. Rather, focusing on the time elapsed between photographs, Morris shifts our attention to each studio session as a performance, rather than to the consistent play on power relations through direction and composition. Recording languid poses, as well as positions of vulnerability and resistance, the photographs across the wall overwhelm with their multitude of focal points. But boiled down to grids, the eye and mind are inevitably led nowhere.
Gridded into a format more suitable for book publication, the gallery experience is impenetrably dense. A book is in the works with full-size reproductions of Morris’ Polaroid arrangements, but if the book format was all along the best venue to showcase and contextualize Lukacs’ studio process, the physical exhibit exists as nothing more than an exercise in design layout.
*First published in Canadian Art online
- A.F. Edmonton