At the centre of a collaboration between artists Attila Richard Lukacs and Michael Morris is an archive of thousands of Polaroid photos, shot by Lukacs over the past two decades as studies for his large-scale paintings. A former Alberta College of Art and Design student, who rose to art-world fame in the 1980s, Lukacs is internationally known for his striking and sometimes controversial, erotically charged works which investigate the complexities of masculinity, desire, power and sex.
His co-creator, Michael Morris, is a longtime friend and mentor, as well as an influential artist and curator, active in Vancouver since the 1960s. Collaboration is at the heart of his practice. In addition to his work as a painter and printmaker, and his interest in performance, he co-founded Image Bank in 1969 — a process-based project in which correspondence, images, ideas and found objects were sent between artists via post, then collected, organized, and archived.
For the show at Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Morris has culled Lukacs’s collection of thousands of Polaroids to create intriguing new work that illuminates aspects of the artists’ respective processes and esthetic. Many of the photos were taken at Lukac’s studio in Berlin — where he and Morris spent many years — and symbols of Germany’s social and political turmoil from the 1980s and 1990s are implicated in the work.
In the gallery, some 3,000 Polaroid photos are grouped in grids of 12 and framed together. The compositions are assembled by Morris, whose selections re-create the studio shoot. A projected video shows him working at a large table, methodically arranging, re-arranging and fixing them together.
The photo’s subjects are young men modelling for the artist nude or semi-nude, most with close-cropped hair, hard white bodies and tattooed skin. They are directed by Lukacs, like actors on a set, and are equipped with costumes and props — a bomber jacket, a kilt with suspenders, a gas mask, flags with the swastika, and so on. Dramatically lit and theatrical, the men are shot in thousands of poses, from many angles. In some, the framing, the quality of light and colour and the positions of bodies recall art history precedents, and in others, Lukacs’s subjects perform a range of feelings including aggression, submission, anger, ecstasy and fear. Those familiar with Lukacs’s work, and who hadn’t considered his process before, might find it startling how directly the content of the photos correspond to his paintings.
An excellent addition to the show is a work loaned from the Nickle Arts Museum, The Eternal Teahouse, made by Lukacs in 1992 and first exhibited in Kassel, Germany, as part of the contemporary art fair Documenta. The work is a re-creation of a “pissoire” — a historic type of Berlin public toilet known to have been a site for erotic encounters between men. Inside are panels painted in gold leaf that recall the popular theme of vanitas or memento mori from the history of art. Lukacs’s panels evoke these moralistic works that functioned as warnings against sins of the flesh. He appropriates icons such as a coiled snake, a bird, a white lily, as well as vines full with fruit and flowers, which traditionally served as reminders of the passing of youth and beauty, and the inevitability of death.
In one panel, reminiscent of work by German Renaissance artist Hans Baldung Grien, a skeleton — a symbol of death and decay — stands behind and reaches around a nude figure. Lukacs replaces the 16th century maiden with a contemporary male, nude but for tightly laced army boots. Visitors might compare the Polaroid studies which are nearby in the gallery. In the context of the early 1990s, when so many men were ravaged by AIDS, The Eternal Teahouse would have been particularly impactful.
There is an intimacy about Lukacs’s collection of Polaroids and the way Morris has presented them — not only because of the sexually charged content, or the implied connection between the photographer and the model — but also because they reveal the artists’ thought process. The evidence of the photos’ use is apparent on their surfaces — many are scrawled with notes or smeared with paint and fingerprints along their white borders. To see the details, viewers must come up close.
There is also something special in the technology — the fact that, with instant photos, chemical processes create images right before our eyes. Polaroid technology has been supplanted by the now ubiquitous digital, and in the last few years the company has halted production of the type of camera and film that was such a favourite tool of many artists.