“I have this recurring dream where I’m a serial killer,” Attila Richard Lukacs reveals. Once, he woke up in such a panic that he couldn’t tell the reverie from reality. He kept asking himself whether he’d ever murdered anyone. “I didn’t know. It was like, they’re coming for me tomorrow, and I spent 20 minutes on the toilet trying to decide what to do with my life.” He kept repeating the same question: “Attila, what did you do with the body?”
A natural question for a painter of bodies, perhaps. But for this artist, whose latest show opens Saturday at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, it carries a special weight. At 37, Lukacs has made his mark by representing acts that verge on murder—brutal beatings and ritual humiliation as well as rhapsodic sex between tough young men. His adoring portraits of skinheads and thugs have made him the official bad boy of his native Canada. But even in New York, where being an evil genius is the second oldest profession, Lukacs has had quite an impact on the Nietzsche and Nobu set.
Elton John collects him. Architects have designed rooms to accommodate his massive canvases. One house-beautiful photo shows an elegantly minimal dining room—complete with a view of the Pacific—dominated by the image of skins in all their grimy splendor. The unintended comedy of brunching before such an icon holds a clue to what makes Lukacs more than a flash in the post-Koons pan. For in these elegiac portraits, painted in a style that mixes high realism with Nazi kitsch, is everything about masculinity liberal society struggles to suppress. Here is Fight Club set in an even more idyllic world, where women don’t even exist—an Eden without Eve.
It’s a dream most men won’t own up to, though they act on it all the time (in sports, business, war). But for Lukacs, these images of what one critic calls “the hysterical male” are souvenirs of an excursion to the place where jerking off meets art meets life. “I’ve already gone there,” he says. “So it’s a matter of, do you want to go there too?”
His studio is a farrago of found objects waiting to be “referenced” in a painting: stroke books from the 1970s (“when porn was still dirty”), news photos of young men in earnest poses (Timothy McVeigh under arrest, jocks at a Columbine memorial), books of Indian and Persian miniatures, a Boy Scouts manual, and Polaroids—hundreds of them, filling a tall cabinet and filed by each model’s name. Hustlers would be more like it, since many of these boys pose for him and then put out—as Lukacs briefly did back in his Canadian days, using the money he earned from turning tricks to pay for other boys.
These photos are also a chronicle of the artist’s life, taking him from a stormy adolescence in Calgary and Vancouver to a precarious sojourn in the squats of Berlin to the belly of the art beast, New York. (Of course, he’s been here before: Fresh out of high school, he arrived at the legendary Mine Shaft only to be told he couldn’t enter, not because of his tender age but because of his Ralph Lauren wardrobe—which he promptly removed.) All along there has been a fascination with skinheads that began when he came upon them as a teenager, sitting in his mother’s sun room and thumbing through a magazine. Doc Martens were this boy’s madeleine.
“I mean, there’s nothing like a 17-year-old with a shaved head and a pair of boots,” Lukacs explains. “There’s a rawness that’s really sincere. And they can be very . . . romantic.” As for the swastikas that adorn skin culture (and a number of his paintings), Lukacs insists, “They’ve taken all meaning out of the image and replaced it with pure aesthetic.” And it’s true, up to a point. In the brave new world of Jörg Haider, fascists don’t sport swastikas, freeing up this symbol to become a fetish. But there’s nothing archaic about its connection to male power. Among other things, the swastika signifies the suppression of femininity, which is why, to certain skinheads—some of them gay—it’s sexier than leather. “Even those gay boys in Berlin loved to pose in front of a swastika,” Lukacs recalls.
Still, there are only so many ways to hook a cross. Whether it’s an astute sense of the market or the drift of his dreams, Lukacs is painting over the swastikas in a portrait of coupling skinheads when I arrive. “I’m subordinating them,” he explains.
Skins are not the only players in this artist’s repertoire. There are also men in uniform, a preoccupation ever since he begged his father, a Hungarian émigré, to send him to military school. It never happened, but Lukacs kept the catalogs as cherished jerk-off material, and in 1990 he used them to make paintings for a show about cadets. It opened during the Gulf War, saddling the artist with a meaning he hadn’t intended—combat has less to do with these paintings than discipline does. One piece stands out as a clue to Lukacs’s sensibility. Called The Good Son, it shows a boy sitting bare chested, spit-polishing a buckle, while an officer stands over him monitoring his work with an unmistakably fatherly regard. But what are those blotches on the boy’s body—painterly technique or scabs and welts?
It doesn’t take a brutal father to plant that image in your head. Just growing up gay, even on the ample Canadian plains, will do: the brothers who played hockey while Attila did crafts; the kids in high school who knew he was queer way before he did; the crush on a straight boy out of Caravaggio, sealed with a blow job that would be immediately denied. And through it all, the fantasy of fusing with the savior, the destroyer, the Man.
This is not an unusual rite of passage for a gay boy, especially an artist (think of David Wojnarowicz growing up close to the knives). If you’re lucky and blessed with love, you come to some sort of peace with your (self-) destructive urges. And the stuff Lukacs is showing these days does suggest a provisional cessation of hostilities. Now the tough guys are languishing in their Eden while a Persian menagerie cavorts around them. And the swastikas, at least in this painting, are a faint white shadow.
It’s impossible to say what this gesture of erasure means, though Lukacs insists, as he does whenever he’s asked to explain his work: “It’s not a critique. It’s coming from an eye.” But the eye sees what the heart feels. So perhaps it’s fitting to mention Lukacs’s boyfriend, Claus. They met in Berlin four years ago, and they went where any young gay couple on a first date might: to the baths. “We were sitting in this room watching the hair grow on the walls,” Lukacs recalls, “and he cried in my arms.”
There’s the serial killer in your dreams, and then there’s the man who cries in your arms. And that makes all the difference.
Research: Josh Lefkowitz