New York

Attila Richard Lukacs

Phyllis Kind Gallery

On the one hand, Attila Richard Lukacs’ exhibition of paintings and sculptures was about an ambivalent ideal of the gay male, both menacing tough and heroic martyr; beneath this politicized surface, however, it subliminally concerned something more interesting: human beings as robots, mechanically living and dying. The show was polarized between two works: Labors in Natural History (all works 1997), a wax body laid out on an anatomy table, its internal electrical circuits exposed and labeled—the corpse as machine—and The Fresh Air Front, a monumental painting of a group of sullen male figures, half- or completely nude, in an urban no-man’s-land. The young men are realistically modeled, but there is a kind of not-alive blankness to them; their lives have neither meaning nor purpose. Their opaque, insular glances convey this as much as the closed eyes of their dead fellow.

Lukacs’ figures are explicitly antisocial; their skinhead garb, the boots and suspenders, attest to that, and thus their gay identity is only one facet of their outsider status. Yet the labels society has placed on them (symbolized here by the sensationalistic newspaper clippings on racist activities that surround the dead body), which they accept as a badge of honor, are not the problem. More compelling is their lack of self-recognition and understanding. It has been said, accurately, that Lukacs is trying to endow his subjects with the heroic presence and grandeur of (straight) males in the art of the old masters. But the men of Leonardo and Michelangelo are “speaking likenesses” conveying a sense of inner life and self-awareness; that was the innovation and the triumph of the humanistic art of the Renaissance. Lukacs’ figures simulate the human, but they lack this inner life. For all their machismo, his figures exist only as poses. They have no self beyond self-exhibition.

The political, which Lukacs sometimes renders with comic-strip irony as in the two men dancing on top of a globe in Tilly & Tyler, is a refuge from this failure of empathetic imagination. So, too, is the erotic. The most germane art-historical question to ask of Lukacs’ works does not concern their iconographic trappings, clever as they are. The chained monkey in Our Need To Do So, for example, is a quotation from a Brueghel painting in the Dahlem Museum in Berlin, the city where Lukacs lives; yet by the artist’s testimony, the monkey—a perverse, clever, restless animal—is a symbol of his psyche, not a comment on tradition. Rather, the issue is what Lukacs adds to the rendering of the male nude, a venerable theme in which the heroic and the erotic fuse. And here Lukacs is weaker than one thinks. Bearing His Burden with Quiet Dignity is a contemporary take on the raped Ganymede carried off to heaven by the predatory god Jupiter in the form of a bird. While Lukacs deliberately respects convention—drapery and surprised gesture are thrown in to preserve the amenities—his scene is physically and emotionally unpersuasive, not to say banal. Lukacs admires the beautiful male body, but the problem is that he has nothing new to say about it, and in fact undermines its beauty, desublimates it, by presenting it with naive realism. This is perhaps a modern difficulty, a tendency against ennobling (toward the opposite, in fact). Lukacs’ gay youths don’t understand their potential for aristocracy, which is why they are such a burden to themselves. The exhibition was titled “It’s Not About Schinkel, It’s About Schinken”—ham, meat. Too bad it’s not the other way around.

Donald Kuspit