Sarah Lucas from YBAs to the Venice Biennale
Damien Hirst, the irrepressible entrepreneur in contemporary British art, was the driving force behind the Young British Artists (YBAs) and organised their infamous Freeze exhibition in 1988 that included the work of fellow students at Goldsmiths College of Art, most notably Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Michael Landy. The YBAs look included preserved dead animals (Damien Hirst), found objects crushed with a steamroller (Cornelia Parker), one's own bed (Tracey Emin) and sculpture made from fresh and canned food, smokes and women's tights (Sarah Lucas).
Fast forward to 2021, Damien Hirst no longer appears as the coolest monkey in the art jungle, Cornelia Parker, recently on show at the MCA, is also off the boil, Tracey Emin remains a mega pop star, while Sarah Lucas has been growing from strength to strength and basking in accolades.
Witty. irreverent, provocative and, to some, confronting and deeply offensive, the art of Sarah Lucas is presented with a baroque exuberance at the NGA in gallery 1 in conjunction with the 'Know my name' exhibition.
For 30 years Lucas has been the 'femme terrible' in the British art scene. Between 1984 and 1987 she studied at Goldsmith College where she met many fellow artists, including Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Gillian Wearing and Gary Hume, who formed the YBAs group, Inspired by the writing of the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin and her arguments on patriarchy and her analysis of pornography, Lucas in her art began to question, with wit and assertiveness, assumed structures in society and the art world.
Spurred on by the organisational genius of Damien Hirst, YBAs brought a sense of excitement to the British art scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lucas also for about six months ran a temporary shop with Tracey Emin, where they sold decorated keyrings, wire penises, hand-painted T-shirts and decorated funky ashtrays. Apparently the friendship was short-lived as was the shop. Lucas, drawing on tabloid newspapers, magazines, street culture and observed structures within the arts community, created a body of work that drew attention to sexist and misogynist assumptions that were held as social norms that she would expose and ridicule with humour.
Lucas's sprawling collage/sculpture, Penis nailed to a board (1991), the title drawn from a tabloid report of boys behaving badly, also provided the title for her first solo exhibition that launched her career and gave her notoriety and a standing as a serious artist in the art world. She is an artist for whom humour and bricolage are important elements in her art and she developed a practice that goes across sculpture, photography and installation. Frequently in her sculptural creations she combines domestic materials, including old furniture, stockings, underwear, cigarettes, cinder blocks and food, such as raw chickens, vegetables and kebabs. The food items often do double service in portraying erotic body parts, especially genitalia.
Recognition came early with Lucas's inclusion in the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, a retrospective exhibition of her art followed at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in East London in 2013, and in 2015 she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. Today she is widely regarded as one of the more important feminist artists of her generation working in Britain.
The exhibition at the NGA brings together a series of early self-portrait photographs plus some of her more recent sculptures. It is an impressive, theatrically presented exhibition, quite different from the slightly 'grunge' look of some of her earlier shows that I have encountered in Europe. The self-portrait photographs are of the artist eating a banana made in 1990 that she apparently rediscovered in about 2017 and released for sale as individual prints under the title Eating a banana (revisited) in an edition of 25 measuring 91.4 x 121.9 cm. In the Canberra exhibition, the photographs have been blown up to about seven metres and are displayed as continuous wallpaper in a gallery with exceptionally high ceilings creating a dramatic setting that invariably dwarfs the scale of the sculptures that were conceived as life-size into miniatures. This is similar to the strategy adopted for her Red Brick Art Museum show in Beijing in 2019-20, again with the same giant photographs and the same sculptures. Where the exhibitions in Beijing and Canberra differ, the banana room in Beijing was a small part of of the survey exhibition of Lucas's work, in Canberra, it is the exhibition.
The huge back and white photographic images of the 28-year-old Lucas dressed in leathers and with unisex cropped hair seductively consuming a banana (with all of its sexual connotations) converts the gallery space into a contested arena where the erotic sculptures strut their stuff under the artist's gaze. The photographs appear to cater to the male desire through the sexual euphemisms, however, the scale dwarfs the potential for this to be read as a submissive image. Big sister is watching.
The 'Bunnies' sculptures, with all of their connotations of Playboy bunnies, Lucas first made in 1997 as eight mannequins out of variously coloured nylon tights that had been stuffed with wool and sat atop and around a snooker table in the installation Bunny Gets Snookered. The stuffed nylon pantyhose became splayed limbs of women's bodies - intimate, glamorous and erotic, while at the same time disposable and abject. Drawing on conventions of Dada and Surrealism - Hans Bellmer's uncanny fetishistic dolls, the soft sculptures of Dorothea Tanning and Louise Bourgeois's fabric sculptures - Lucas's tubular elongated female limbs adopt erotic poses.
The bunnies moved onto chairs of various descriptions and adopted stiletto heels, coloured socks, fashionista shoes and other fashion accessories and as the series developed they moved out of the snooker hall up to the fashion catwalk and business executive lounges. Lucas adopts existing gender stereotypes that are illustrated by the bunnies, subjects of masculine conquests, but non-responsive slumped, sagging forms and literally empty heads seem to turn these traditional objects of desire back on themselves and they appear as hollow and ridiculous. Lucas, as in much of her art, sets up a mirror for sexism, rather than presenting a critique or an agenda for change. As she pointed out in an interview, "I'm not trying to solve the problem. I'm exploring the moral dilemma by incorporating it."
In this exhibition, apart from the soft sculpture bunnies, there is a new breed of figures cast in bronze (based on the stuffed nylon forms) where on a heightened level the line between the humorous and the abject is blurred. Some of these new bunnies, still shown in laid back seductive poses, are no longer simply female and in pieces including Elf Warrior (2018) and Dick'Ead (2018) they have thrusting, vertically positioned huge male members. In the book, Sarah Lucas: after 2005, before 2012, she listed her attraction for making penises, "appropriation, because I don't have one; voodoo; economics; totemism; they're a convenient size for the lap; fetishism; compact power; Dad; why make the whole bloke?; gents, gnomey; because you don't see them on display much; for religious reasons having to do with the spark."
In another bronze sculpture, where gender is strangely morphed into ambiguous forms, Tittipussidad (2018), that has been recently acquired by the NGA, the struggle between attraction and rejection is palpable, where forms simultaneously seduce and repulse, but you are left with an image that will continue to haunt your imagination for a long time to come.
Lucas, in recent interviews, appears a little depressed on where feminism and the world is presently heading. She observed, "things seem on a very conservative trend now, fascistic even. I was watching Nancy Pelosi speaking after the storming of the Capitol by right-wing fanatics. She was making a very serious speech about the threat to democracy, looking very pale and shaken, and I noticed that she was on very precarious stiletto heels beneath her trouser suit. This seems to be a necessary get up for women to be taken seriously in public life. They're allowed to talk tough and wear power suits but are inevitably tottering around on implausible heels. What does this tell us? Is it an ugly and hateful thing for women to look anything other than 'feminine'"?
Perhaps Lucas's sculptures have lost none of their relevance and are more crucial today than ever before and are needed to expose and reverse this fascistic trend in our society.
*An earlier version of this essay was published in The Canberra Times
Project 1: Sarah Lucas, National Gallery of Australia Canberra.
7 August - 18 April 2022
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GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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