Attila Richard Lukacs is a Canadian-born, internationally acclaimed painter. He became well-known in the 1980s with his large scale canvases of skinheads. He has a rich oeuvre, with hundreds of paintings, but has also lived the tormented life of a 21st century artist.
Left: Coo-coo-ka-choo, Mr. Robinson (1999). From collection of Salah Bachir and Jacob Yerex
Here is an interview with ARTES contributor, Emese Krunak-Hajagos: xxxxxx
E.K-H: In the group-show, Over the Rainbow: Seduction and Identity, organized from the collection of Salah Bachir at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, your paintings stand out for their strength and painterly value. Where and when did you meet Salah Bashir and how did his collection of your work become so comprehensive?
A.R.L: I met Salah in Berlin in 1988 or 1989, when Michael Morris brought him to my studio and introduced us. Salah bought his first painting, 1-800-MIKE, from the show at 49th Parallel, NYC, and later at The Power Plant, Toronto. Salah bought what he loved, sometimes directly acquiring an entire body of work, or by commissioning, and through secondary market.
E.K-H: The Power Plant show in 1989 was my first exposure to your work. I found it an extremely strong, ‘mature’ show. Tell us more about those years.
A.R.L: I started that body of work when I moved to Berlin in the fall of 1986. My friend Michael Morris helped me to get a studio in Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, on Marieneplatz, where I was an artist in residence for a year and a half. I started that cycle of paintings immediately. They were exhibited in Bethanien’s gallery, which was once a hospital chapel, where they fit in well. That was also when I started to paint the monkeys. They came into my visual vocabulary at the same time as the skinheads. I guess I did those paintings in a year—maybe a year-and-a-half—it was very fast. After that, they came to The Power Plant.
E.K-H: Were you ‘at the right place at the right time’ in Berlin?
A.R.L: At that time in Berlin there weren’t many galleries, not like today. But it certainly was “the right place at the right time” for me. I was itching to get out of Canada and I knew there was something out there more exciting than the Calgary suburb where I grew up, or the hippy-like student community at Emily Carr College of Art and Design. I just wanted to move—get away from it all. Berlin was an exciting city; and the sexuality was there too, the codified skinheads of the world. The codes and symbols that existed there became part of my paintings: like white and red laces, white and red braces, and tattoos. They permeated my paintings because they were part of the sex scene. It was understood that it was only for the weekend and those guys might hop in a taxi to get home, to avoid gettiing beaten up on the U-bahn.
E.K-H: I can understand why you painted those skinheads in life size scale. They seem to be present in the room. Did you use models for them?
A.R.L: I started using Polaroid. It was immediate and I could see from it what I was going to paint—really quite useful since I referenced historical works by Caravaggio, Degas or Jacques-Louis David. I posed the models according to those historical references, with various costume changes: with or without boots and gradually undressing them. Micha, my boyfriend, owned a gay bar, when one evening he said, “I found a model for you,” and I loved Alex. He became my muse. The other references came from pornographic magazines found in the bookshops of Berlin. They were dirty, very dirty, scatological, heavy on fetishes, very hard core and they were fascinating. I wasn’t directly using the paintings or the photographs but, instead, taking some part of them both, collaging them into my paintings.
I devoted a year-and-a-half on that project and those paintings were big; I was working on scaffolding which soon became referenced in the paintings. Also, the proscenium arch windows in my studio figured into many of my paintings, acting as a stage or backdrop against which a drama is set. Caravaggio used the arch, as well. Berlin’s architecture and museums were inspiring, as the city’s historical buildings, streets, history, and gay history all influenced my work.
That was the birth of the techno generation in Germany and I was there in Berlin when the love parade started. I found that world to be as exciting as the painting I was doing at that time—as they co-existed well. My friends were brilliant and created a techno empire, making us rich and able to shop at Armani and Gucci. But at some point the techno house came crashing down, and a lot of people had to leave. Those people—the expats from Canada and my “NY sisters”—who had all arrived in Berlin at the same time, now, ten years later, were all departing at the same time. Good things happened to us there, and they’re still my friends.
E.K-H: You moved to New York in 1996. What was your experience there?
Right: Arbour Vitae C (2000), Mixed media on canvas. From the Collection of Salah Bachir
A.R.L: I didn’t take advantage of New York as well as I might have, since it is so expensive. So I had to do what I could to survive. My overhead was very high, and while I did a couple of exhibitions at Phyllis Kind’s gallery in the City, I was also showing at Diane Farris in Vancouver, and here in Toronto, as well. I was a resident with the Boston Museum School of Fine Art, flying up on Friday mornings and back in the afternoon. I had so much going on but didn’t network well. I think, in the end, I failed to make all the connections I should have, and my revenue-producing work suffered from the stress. That weakened my confidence. I still did some great paintings, like the Arbour Vitae series (2000). It was total abstraction, leaving the figure behind. It was really freeing.
There was an expectation of painting figures; not only other’s expectations, but mine, too. Many of those figurative paintings that I enthusiastically done were not received well because of their themes. I was unhappy about my painting’s direction and was battling that feeling. In 1999, Salah Bachir bought some of my painting from the Garden series. I saw myself going further, but people were still asking about the skinheads with the boots, even though they were also in the Garden series. I still never really handled that issue in a proper way.
Between that and my substance abuse, I became depressed. There was no energy in my work because I had no energy to put into it. I produced some good pieces, but theoretically not every painting was a good one. I now wish that I had held some back, not putting out so much. But I was trying to feed too many of my luxury habits. It all snowballed toward the tipping point, where I had my foot on the edge of an abyss, and I was slipping fast. I realized I’d seen hell and evil. It almost drove me mad.
At that time, since the meat packing district in New York was becoming hip and more expensive, and my studio rent was going way too high, I had to move, recognizing that it was time to leave the City.
Below: Seven Devils Dead, 2008, Oil on canvas, 80 x 162″. Courtesy of the artist
E.K-H: You’ve mentioned that in Hawaii the rain helped you to create some paintings. Did nature around you there aid in your recovery?
A.R.L: I’ve always loved nature, even as a child, and there were often trees,
butterflies or flowers in my paintings.
In leaving New York, I felt I had to go in a completely opposite of NY and ended up in Maui, Hawaii. I luckily settled on that destination with of the love and support of my parents. The spirits of Maui were healthy and helped me to heal. There was that energy from nature that connects us all in a web—the total opposite of the darkness that I had gone through. I wasn’t even sure if I had any soul left, but I feel I reclaimed it bit-by-bit in Hawaii. It was lovely to listen to the wind and feel the spirits.
E.K-H: Back in Vancouver, in around 2003, you experienced an abstract period with black, white and grey. There is a Hungarian saying: “further from the word”— meaning getting gradually further from naming things, but at the same time, getting closer to the core of them. Is it true either for that series, or the landscapes that followed?
A.R-L: I actually think that was exactly it. Even the Berlin paintings weren’t figurative as I started to paint them. By just putting down backgrounds on bare canvas, amazing things happened—unexpected things: experimental chances that became a beautiful style of painting. Before those abstracts and grisailles around 2011, I did some large pieces. They were my reaction to the American invasion of Iraq and the propaganda surrounding it. Those canvases were heavy with possible narratives. But in the abstract works that followed, I focused only on gestures and movements, to create a surface, or just let the paint flow down on the canvas. It was cathartic to paint the surface alone, rather than working on a composition for 3-4 months. I wanted to paint a gesture or abstraction, without thinking about ‘painting between the lines.’
E.K-H: Do you think about bringing the figures back?
A.R.L: The figures are coming back in different ways. I still think that most of my paintings now are figurative, even when the figure is completely absent. There are also compositions in which I break down the figure, so that there’s just a hand, bum or lotus made of ten penises. I also painted three portraits of my friend Fred since I’ve wanted to do a life-sized etching of him.
Landscapes are my main focus now and they come from the garden—a garden of my imagination and painting. I have always been inspired by the Indian miniature paintings. I find their use of colour and composition contemporary, which is also true of Renaissance landscapes.
A.R.L: I work every day except Sunday. I need discipline to take Sunday off to do my chores or even do nothing.
Right: A Boy Floating on a Leaf, From the Garden series, 1999, Oil on canvas. From the Collection of Salah Bachi
E.K-H: What are your plans? That “coffer” is always packed and waiting for you in Berlin – are you thinking about returning there?
A.R.L: I would like to, but for 3 or 4 years, to get a studio and create a body of work. Perhaps it would help establish a back-and-forth dialogue between Vancouver and Berlin, but it will certainly take a couple of years.
By Emese Krunak-Hajagos, Contributing Writer
Publisher of artoronto.ca