Polaroids: Attila Richard Lukacs and Michael Morris (exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta; Edmonton, Alberta, until May 18, 2009).
The first piece of “visual art” I saw, or perhaps the first that I actually looked at, upon arriving in Berlin, Germany in spring 1990 — at the apartment of Canadian artist Michael Morris — was a set of 20 Polaroid photos, placed in a single frame, of a nude young male, about 19 or 20 years old, taken by Attila Richard Lukacs, a then 27-year-old Canadian painter also living in Berlin. I had come to the former (and future) capital of Germany, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, as a freelance journalist to cover the first post-communist “free” election in East Germany and I wasn’t at the moment especially focused either on seeing art or thinking about erotic matters (although both of those things are always lurking, at least at the back of my mind).
I knew who Lukacs was, having seen the paintings of the Alberta-born artist at “The Young Romantics” show curated by Scott Watson at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1985, an exhibition that became instantly legendary for its declaration of the resurgence of figurative painting in Canadian art.
Michael Morris’s apartment was located on Mommsenstrasse, near the intersection of Schlueterstrasse, just off the Ku’damm, the main median-divided, tree-lined boulevard of what was then still West Berlin. It’s an elegant corner of the Charlottenburg district, whose five-storey, weighty, Jugendstil apartment buildings of the late 19th century had been accidentally spared the bombings of World War II. Those bombings, as I’d already observed on the city busride in from Tegel Airport, had destroyed half of the former capital of the Nazi Reich, and necessitated the postwar construction program of drab, but functional, plaster frontages that filled in the gaps of the cityscape.
The familiar figure of Michael was waiting for me at the Ku’damm bus stop across the street from the tiny triangular George Grosz Platz. I trudged alongside him, luggage in hand, to Mommsenstrasse, where we passed through his building’s enclosed courtyard, which featured a large chestnut tree about to bloom, and climbed the circular tower staircase to his third floor studio apartment.
I’d known Michael for many years, since the late 1960s, in Vancouver, where he was a prominent Canadian painter. He was perhaps best-known for formalist abstract works (“stripe paintings,” we called them), but was simultaneously, in Vancouver and Berlin (where he lived for a decade, beginning in the early 1980s), influenced by the international Fluxus movement, which led to work in performance art, videos, and vast collections of images, a kind of “archival art” that appeared under the heading of “The Image Bank.” A further strand of his work included a voluminous set of homoerotic drawings that made an obvious connection to contemporary gay consciousness, as well as many photo albums documenting his Berlin life. For any Canadian passing through Berlin who was even vaguely connected to the art world, the instruction was to, “Call Michael” (which also happens to be the title of one of Lukacs’s more notable paintings, in which Morris appears). Apart from all else, Morris was an astute guide to the intertwined historical strata of the about-to-be reunited city, as well as a person with an unrivalled historical knowledge of the arts.
But for the moment (that crucial first moment), he was simply a gracious host putting on the kettle for tea and dealing with a disoriented, jetlagged writer from home. When he ducked into the cramped, combination pantry-library just off the kitchen, he casually called out to me, “Come and have a little shriek at this.”
On a wall inside the room was Lukacs’s set of Polaroids of his model. The naked youth was photographed in a variety of postures from various angles, including several shot from above him. In many of the pictures, the poses suggested scenes of submission, bondage, and vulnerability beyond the subject’s nudity.
The reason for putting “visual art” in quote marks in referring to those photos is because the intent of the piece seemed variable to me — that is, it was a playful gift from a young artist to an avuncular mentor, not necessarily a “work of art” in the “serious” sense of that term, but something clearly from the process of art. As a viewer, I saw the pictures of the boy with his hands locked behind him as if tied, or spread-eagled on the ground, as images of desire that momentarily jolted me out of my dazed traveller’s state. At the same time, I consciously filed that response or “shriek,” as Michael put it, in practical terms, as, “So this is Berlin, too,” sort of in the manner of Christopher Isherwood’s declaration, “Berlin meant Boys” (in Chistopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind, 1976). That is, if I was ever in Berlin again, there was the possibility that that was the sort of person I might encounter. Whatever else I would see in Berlin in the next few days — mostly politicians, the still functioning checkpoints of the Berlin Wall, first impressions of a city destined to become the post-communist new centre of Europe — those images from Lukacs’s Polaroid photos remained as an erotic underlay to the larger historical tableau.
When I returned to Berlin for the spring and summer of 1991 (and subsequently, for all the years since then as a part-time resident of the city), Michael introduced me to Attila and took me to his studio. It was a large vaulted space under the inter-urban S-Bahn railway tracks at Luneburger Strasse 370, in the Moabit district, just north of the city’s central Tiergarten park, on the other side of the meandering Spree River, and within range of the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate, two of the city’s iconic architectural images.
Lukacs had come to Berlin in 1986 and Morris helped to obtain for him a place at Berlin’s Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. The Kunstlerhaus was an artists’ residence and studio space in the Kreuzberg district, a neighbourhood, as Morris recalls in a recent interview, “known for its bohemian community, working class population, Turkish immigrants, artists, and skinheads,” figures whom Lukacs drew on as models for his work.
While there, Lukacs energetically embarked on a succession of large paintings and portraits of youths, most of which involved the use of his Polaroid studies. The monumental paintings often featured gangs of skinheads in clubhouse scenes of ritualized sexual initiation taking place in underground and abandoned industrial settings. They, along with the portraits, were shown in a solo exhibition at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in spring 1988. These spectacular tableau paintings were described by Scott Watson in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, “Adoration and Denial,” as “large spectacles,” in the tradition of “history painting with life-size figures,” a kind of painting that is also often “the site of moral allegories.”
They, as well as the paintings that followed, which filled the walls of the studio I visited, over which the trains periodically rumbled, comprise a documentation of the times. One memorable painting, for instance, records a contemporary historical scene of workers in front of the Brandenburg Gate, at work on the reconstruction emblematic of the reunification of Berlin. As Morris notes, Lukacs lived and painted in Berlin for ten years, from 1986 to 1996, an “historic era that saw the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two Germanys.” And as he rightly says, Lukacs “was the only artist who painted the events of that time… The only way of making sense of them, from moment to moment, was to capture them in painting.” The young people whose politics “played out in the streets during the day and in the techno clubs at night” were largely disenfranchised youth and skinheads, who came to populate Lukac’s canvasses.
By 1991, with Germany reunited and borders between former Soviet bloc countries opened, an influx of people from the former East Germany and other eastern European countries now entered the newly amalgamated Berlin. The repertory company of those photographed by Lukacs in his Polaroid studies for paintings expanded with the new arrivals but, as before, included casual pickups, designated muses, lovers, old friends, and various participants from the Berlin “scene.”
The paintings that Lukacs made during his Berlin period are at once disturbing and beautiful. As Watson says, they are “difficult and confrontational, telling us something we might prefer not to know.” As noted above, they often feature the marginalized youths of the period, are suffused with imminent violence, and portray sexual extremes of ritualized initiation, defecation, projectile vomiting, domination, and submission.
At the same time, they are striking for their painterly beauty and technical skill, in terms of the human figures, the use of light, as well as materials — in addition to oils, frequently a mixture of gold leaf and tar — and the grungy settings, thick with signs, graffiti tags, tattoos, and other subtle information. Their density is thickened by painterly “quotations” that transform gestures and images from a wide array of Lukacs’s predecessors in the history of art, including Breughel, Goya, and Degas. It’s as if the works of Adolph von Menzel, the 19th century German historical painter of the late aristocracy and burgeoning industrialization were crossed with the apocalyptic visions of Hieronymous Bosch, and the resulting encounter underscored by the wit and irony of Lukacs’s commentary. In addition to the paintings that record a demimonde of skinheads transformed into young Spartans, there is also a series that envisions a multicultural, multicoloured, thoroughly sensualized Eden, and another that presents a re-imagined fantastical Animal Garden (or Tiergarten), peopled with humans and other beasts.
Since viewers frequently ask about the painter’s attitude towards the scenes he portrays, the crucial thing to remember is that Lukacs isn’t making a political statement, he’s making an historical statement. That is, as Watson notes, the images are “certainly not an advocacy of the ideology… of the skinheads themselves,” but rather a portrayal of what was to be seen in the Zeitgeist. As Morris insists, “His point of view is honed from experience, but he paints history.” And when Lukacs isn’t painting an often hellish history, he’s envisioning its utopian counterpart.
Amid this large body of work, I eventually found the boy I’d first seen in the Polaroids. He appears in a 4×3 metre 1987 canvas titled “Down.” Its balcony perspective looks down on a cluster of a half-dozen, naked, kneeling or grovelling youths, one of whom looks plaintively up toward us, set against the background of a marble, patterned, palace floor, its white diamond pattern occasionally merging with the flesh to give the effect of wings attached to submissive angels.
Angelic or not, the model in the first Polaroids I saw was to have, unbeknownst to him, a further adventurous career. A couple of years ago, Michael called. This time, it wasn’t a “Call Michael” occasion, but a call to me as a long-time member of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) board. In a sort of nightmare of errors (as contrasted to the more familiar comedy of errors), the details of which can be skipped, the Vancouver police had entered Morris’s apartment in a Vancouver artists’ co-op, and had, among other things, seized the Lukacs set of Polaroids, as part of an investigation into the possibility that they were “child pornography” under Canadian law.
A BCCLA lawyer was soon on the scene. In short order, it was pointed out to the police that the model was clearly of age, and that the set of Polaroids was, equally clearly, a 20-year-old “work of art” (now in the “serious” sense of that term). In due course, the art was returned to the owner, and the investigation closed.
A few months later, I was visiting Lukacs’s new Vancouver studio, a former auto garage, looking at a new array of his visionary paintings about the wars of the young 21st century, as well as others depicting present day life in Vancouver’s grim Downtown Eastside. While I was there, I noticed a framed set of Polaroids. That first set of Polaroids I’d seen in Berlin so long ago had resurfaced. Looking at the photos once more, I asked Attila who the young man was, and he offhandedly recalled that the model was a rent-boy he’d picked up at Bahnhof Zoo, or Zoologischer Garten station, at the time the main train station of West Berlin, and a well-known gay cruising site. Attila added, with a characteristic chuckle, So, it was a two-for-one deal; in addition to the usual services, the young man was also available as a model for Lukacs’s Polaroid studies.
The vast, loose archive of some 3,000 or more of Lukacs’s Polaroid studies that Michael Morris has sorted, selected, and assembled into sets or “pages,” and that are now on exhibit at Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta (until May 18), invites multiple readings.
At first sight they are of course homoerotic pictures, part of the extensive image repertoire of our times, one that ranges from private photos, cruising websites, queer magazines, all the way to widely available commercial porn. In a secular world, I sometimes have the illusion that porn shows us the equivalent of the ancient gods, or at least godlets. At the same time as the photos present figures of fantasy, and have the practical function of being studies for paintings, they participate in an artistic tradition, well-known to Lukacs and frequently explicated by Morris, of a more than century-old succession of German homoerotic photography, one of direct transmission from Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931) to Herbert List (1903-1975) to Herbert Tobias (1924-1982).
Second, the photos are traditional studies or sketches for paintings, utilizing the handy Polaroid technology introduced in the middle of the last century. As Morris explains, “The Polaroids are essential references for the paintings. They inform us about the subjects, the painting’s composition and the artist’s creative process.” The Polaroid’s advantage, like that of later digital photographic technologies, is its ability to catch and instantly reproduce a moment in time. But unlike instant digital photography, the Polaroid camera yields an immediate material object, one that can be used and handled when the painter subsequently works on the canvas. What’s more, “Attila could shoot many images of the same model in one sitting… as a way to create sequential images. This allowed Attila to greatly expand the visual information that would be available to him for when he was painting.”
Morris’s reorganization of the photos into a version of their sequentiality generates in each set of twelve photos a sort of narrative or little story. The photos have another unusual quality. Morris points to it when he observes that upon seeing the paintings and studies together, “it is amazing how surprisingly similar they are. I notice that [Lukacs’s] use of light is intuitive. Both the Polaroid studies and the paintings have the same sense of light.” Indeed, in a reversal of photo-realism in painting, the more you look at the photos the more they begin to look like paintings, a kind of painting-realism in photos. Further, if you look at the sequences on a computer, making use of the zoom function, the photos and the figures in them literally move, emphasizing their narrative character and producing the illusion of the figure coming to life.
Finally, the photos can be viewed, in a couple of ways, as intimate sources of the paintings. As Vancouver Sun art critic Kevin Griffin observed at an initial showing of the photo sets, in several of the three-across-and-four-down grids of twelve, “the random marks on the surface… show how they have been handled as working objects… There are fingerprints and smudges of paint and scribbles on individual Polaroids. On others, words such as ‘arm’ and ‘boots’ have been written on the white borders. Messy and random, the marks violate the horizontal and vertical lines of the edges of the photographic images,” and they serve to transport the viewer or reader in and out of the unfolding narrative, reminding him or her that these are artifacts of the painting process, literal emanations of the artist and his materials.
The other, more obvious, sense of the photos as intimate sources resides in the subjects of the photos themselves. Lukacs’s choice of persons to photograph is of course idiosyncratic. As Michael Morris reminds me, citing a sentence I had once written, “Desire orders itself with ruthless tyranny.” So, we don’t ask, Why that one?, or, Why skinheads?, or whatever else, but rather, Who is he?
The answers range from the casually encountered boy from the Bahnhof Zoo to people who inhabited Lukacs’s life. When I look at the set of photos of a young man injecting himself with heroin, the set eponymously labelled “Tyler” (he also appears in other sets), I recall someone both Michael and I knew and spent an occasional afternoon with, one of Lukacs’s oldest intimate friends from Canada. And I also recall the moment a year or two later when Michael told me that Tyler, who had been living/dying with Aids, had fatally overdosed.
Just as the raw canvas often receives an underlying primer coat, so also is the content of any given painting, whether historical, utopian, or simply the particularity of a portrait, underlaid by the implicit relationships in the photos. The Polaroids, rescued from boxes and scattered piles, now reappear as a form of art, albeit a subsidiary art. That is, after seeing them, we want to go on to the paintings.
Perhaps the exhibition of Lukacs’s Polaroids will have only a somewhat specialized audience, but their presence in a Canadian province usually best-known for oil, very Conservative politics, and dinosaur skeletons, is a daring curatorial decision by the directors of the Art Gallery of Alberta, as well as being a show of intimate sources. If desire is often the artist’s first epistemology, as these pictures demonstrate, the knowledge to which he ultimately aspires is the completed story revealed in the painting. But the sequences of photos tell their own interesting stories.
Berlin, April 1, 2009.