ART

Attila the painter

An artist triumphs with menacing works

PAMELA YOUNG October 1 1990
ART

Attila the painter

An artist triumphs with menacing works

PAMELA YOUNG October 1 1990

Attila the painter

ART

An artist triumphs with menacing works

In the mid-1980s, a young Canadian artist began painting beautiful pictures of intimidating people. Raised in Calgary and educated at Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art and Design, Attila Richard Lukacs moved to West Berlin in 1986 and used the city’s skinheads as models. His heroically scaled canvases of those subjects, which have since won Lukács international acclaim, are both sumptuous and unnerving: they endow street toughs with a dignity that classical artists reserved for nobles and gods, s Now, in recent paintings on o display at the Diane Farris I Gallery in Vancouver until £

Sept. 26, the 28-year-old art1 ist has focused on another ô fraternal organization—U.S. " military academies.

Lukacs’s provocative artistic vision, coupled with his mastery of technique, has made him the most renowned Canadian artist of the under-30 generation. Despite its often gritty subject matter and undercurrents of homosexual eroticism, his work has a wide appeal. Galleries in North America, Europe and Japan have displayed it, and private collectors of Lukacs’s paintings include British pop star Elton John and Australian film director Fred Schepisi. Said his Vancouver dealer, Diane Farris: “Some people have an immediate reaction of revulsion or anger to some of his works. But in general, people just have a sense that they are looking at the work of a tremendous painter.” However, Lukács is now involved in a dispute with Canadian customs officials over some of his source materials. The artist said that when he arrived at the Vancouver International Airport on Sept. 4, customs personnel detained some of his collages—plus advertising literature for X-rated videos, which he uses as the basis for some of his works—on the grounds that they were obscene.

Meanwhile, Lukacs’s art is appreciating rapidly in value. Farris estimates that some of his largest canvases are now worth $130,000—a sum approaching the low end of prices for works by such established Canadian artists as Alex Colville. The paintings in his current Vancouver show, titled To Interested Young

Men, range in price from $13,500 to $49,000 and, within two weeks of the Sept. 8 opening, 13 out of 17 had sold.

The inspiration for Lukacs’s new exhibition came from his own past. The artist says that when he was an adolescent, he desperately wanted to attend military school. In the show’s catalogue, he describes his military paintings as a “personal exorcism.” To prepare for the show, Lukács obtained some military catalogues, just as he did when he was a 13year-old aspiring cadet. Some of the canvases are directly based on brochure photographs.

His paintings seem to celebrate military discipline and at the same time question the wisdom of the training. While Lukacs’s skinhead paintings often confront the viewer with infernal visions of sadomasochism, his military paintings have a quieter, more ambivalent quality. The disciplined young men in several paintings are amalgams of apple-pie wholesomeness and machinelike, programmed efficiency. In Remarks

made to the President at the White House, a fresh-faced and thoroughly inscrutable young soldier holds an American flag and a recruitingpicture pose. In Dance a manly dance, a football player, fencer, boxer and soccer player are frozen in readiness for sporting combat. Said Thomas Sokolowski,director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan: “The images seem so warm and positive at first glance but, when you look at them awhile, they can make you feel rather queasy.”

A preview of the paintings highlighted the

paradoxical nature of Lukacs’s success—a surprisingly genial encounter between art-world affluence and street-punk attitude. In the dense crowds in front of the works, Chanel suits mingled with shaved heads. The white glare from TV video-camera lights bounced off Lukacs’s imposing images of uniformed young men saluting, standing at attention and holding flags. And in the loft at the back of the gallery, a woodwind trio wearing tuxedoes—and camouflage fatigue caps—played sprightly Sousa marches. At the centre « of all the activity stood the I tall, affable Lukács, with his ^ shaved head, black bomber à jacket, black jeans and red ô Doc Martens shoes.

I Although “Attila” sounds g like the kind of name that an u aggressive young painter would cultivate, it happens to be Lukacs’s real first name. His parents, engineer Joseph Lukács and his wife, Helen, fled Hungary in 1956. Attila Richard Lukács, the second of three sons, was bom in Edmonton in 1962. Intensely interested in art from early childhood, he began

to attract attention at Emily Carr, where he created brash works encrusted with paint, tar and chicken feathers. Said Scott Watson, curator of the Arts Centre at the University of British Columbia: “He was one of the most talented younger painters I’ve ever seen.” Watson organized Young Romantics, a 1985 show at the Vancouver Art Gallery that helped to spread Lukacs’s renown. Attracted by Europe’s lively arts scene, Lukács moved to Berlin a year later. There, he painted monkeys—haunting, brazen-faced primates that

urinated on each other and glowered out from the canvas. Farris, by then his dealer, sold all eight of the monkey paintings in a 1988 show.

Then, Lukács began concentrating on skinheads. One of his most powerful works is the 1988 canvas Junge Spartaner fordern Knaben zum Kampf Heraus (The Young Spartans Challenge the Boys to Fight), which was sold to the London Regional Art Gallery in London, Ont., one year ago for $38,000. On the left, five naked skinheads in poses borrowed from a work by 19th-century French artist Edgar

Degas form a threatening group in front of a burnished red backdrop adorned with gold, vaguely Stalinist logos. They gaze towards six semi-clothed skinheads—grouped like the figures in a 16th-century Caravaggio painting— who inhabit a cave-like, grafitti-scarred space on the right. The wall-sized canvas seethes with eroticism and potential violence.

Lukács noted that one of the issues that fascinates him is whether clothes make the man. With their shaven heads and heavy boots, skinheads have adopted modes of dress that are similar to military uniforms. One painting in the

new show, Your head is beautiful, plays on that outward interchangeability. In the canvas, a new recruit has just had his head shaved but is not yet in uniform. Said Lukács: “At this point, he just looks like a normal skinhead with a plaid shirt.” Currently serving as artist-in-residence at Alberta’s Banff Centre for Fine Arts, Lukács will be in Calgary on Oct. 12 for the opening of another one-man show, at the Alberta College of Art. The Calgary show will feature 10 new monkey and skinhead works—subjects that will also figure prominently in a show in Co-

PAMELA YOUNG in Vancouver

logne, Germany, later this year at the gallery of his European dealer, Dietmar Werle. And he is preparing six works for Los Angeles’s ART/LA 90, a major art fair held in December.

Lukács says that next month he will return to his Berlin studio, a long, narrow space beneath a stretch of elevated train tracks. He usually works seven days a week, starting in the afternoon and often continuing late into the night. Although his income has risen dramatically in the past few years, he said that his life has not changed very much. He shares a loft apartment in the Kreuzberg district—“where all the punks live”—with Vancouver photographer Terry Ewasiuk and Berlin bar owner Michael Danger. Said the artist: “I can go out now and buy that $40 tube of blue, or, what the hell, buy two or three because it’s a nice blue and it’s the blue I want. I can now allow myself the luxury of making better paintings.”

Open and articulate, Lukács rarely avoids answering questions. But he does refuse to explain his art. “I think it’s the body of work that speaks, and I’m not sure I’m willing to define what it is that’s supposed to be read into it,” he said. Indeed, why he finds inspiration where he does remains something of a mystery even to him. “If I knew why I wanted to paint something, the fascination would be gone— and it probably wouldn’t interest me anymore,” said the artist. Lukacs’s instincts and his vigorous talent have already taken him a long way in a short time. Where the young artist is going could prove to be even more extraordinary than where he has been.