Sarah Lucas's Perverse, Feminist Art Is Vital in the #MeToo Era
Her crass, daring work resonates as a funny exploration of gender in an especially unfunny time for women.
All images courtesy the New Museum
On September 13, a crowd gathered at the New Museum in New York City to hurl raw eggs at a wall. They exploded against the white surface at varying heights, leaving yellow yolk trails that reached the shell-strewn floor. The raucous event, One Thousand Eggs: For Women (2018), was staged by artist Sarah Lucas. As its title suggests, women were the intended egg-throwers, but men could participate too, albeit in drag or “dressed as giant phalluses,” according to a museum spokesperson.
The resulting splatter is still there. Call it a waste of eggs, but the wall—now a painting of sorts—perfectly encapsulates the British artist’s concerns over the last 30 years: the beauty and energies of everyday materials; the celebration of intuitive and collaborative art-making; the pushing back of social expectations, particularly of women; and the possibility of finding unapologetic pleasure in the perverse.
These themes permeate throughout the New Museum, where Sarah Lucas: Au Natural brings together nearly 200 works that amplify Lucas’ distinctive, unabashed voice. Spanning her entire career, Au Naturel represents the first major exhibition of her work in the US—her largest one yet.
Considering that Lucas—who is associated with Young British Artists (YBAs), a group that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin—has long been an icon in her home country, it’s a little surprising that her work has received less exposure on this side of the pond.
Curator Margot Norton attributes this to Americans being “a bit more prudish” than audiences in Europe and the UK. “It will be interesting to see how an American audience responds to the work, which is very honest about sexuality and identity and many issues that are almost taboo to speak about,” she tells VICE.
This honesty is direct and, at times, disarmingly so. Since the late 1980s, Lucas has skewered and satirized gender stereotypes with simple but outrageous portrayals of the human body, from stuffed pantyhose sculptures coiled into flesh-like beings to 11-foot-long cast concrete dicks resting on a crushed car—another conventional measure of a man. The latter is displayed in Au Naturel with a new car sculpture Lucas made for the exhibition, an old Jaguar she sawed in half. Its front is bedazzled with cigarettes—a recurring symbol of abjection in her work—while its back is charred, having been set aflame.
Lucas is perhaps best known for her works that adopt perishable food as explicit sexual signifiers to question traditional depictions of the female body and the conceit of the macho male. The installation Au Naturel (1994), which lends the exhibition its name, features a slumped mattress, adorned with a cucumber anchored by two oranges resting beside a pair of melons and a bucket. The comical image of a pair of lovers, reduced to cheap commodities, is unmistakable. In a similar vein, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab—a tableau of these greasy foodstuffs slapped on a table—makes crudely apparent the all-too-common objectification of women’s bodies. And in one of Lucas’ many self-portraits, in which she manspreads and gazes fiercely at the camera, she poses with two fried eggs on her chest.
Writing in the exhibition catalog, the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin succinctly describes the thrust of this visual pun: “As in so many of her works, femininity and masculinity are represented as masquerade, as constructions rather than essences.”
Two Fried Eggs and Kebab greets you from a corner on the museum’s second floor, where the show officially begins (Lucas has made another new, sublime work for the lobby—an 11-foot-tall pair of boots she cast in concrete). It’s paired with seminal works from Penis Nailed to a Board, Lucas’ first solo show in 1992 at the artist-run space City Racing. The titular work consists of blown-up pages from a now-defunct British tabloid, collaged to highlight the misogyny and bigotry in its headlines and images.
Lucas started working with newspaper and other found material largely out of convenience. As a young student at Goldsmiths (where she met many other YBAs), she didn’t have much money. She had left home at 16, started squatting, and worked part-time odd jobs to get by. An incessant inventor, she used whatever was at her disposal to create, be it food and old furniture or tights and toilets. With bawdy humor, she transformed these quotidian objects into uncanny beings, bestowing upon them palpable energies.
“At Goldsmiths I was looking to convince myself—actually be convinced by something I’d made,” Lucas has said. “As if that thing could have a validity, a life of its own even, independent of me, something transcendent and full of energy. The notion of ‘truth to materials’ became important.”
Understanding this as core to her practice, the New Museum is replacing foodstuffs regularly to adhere to Lucas’s vision. For Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, a new kebab arrives daily from a nearby restaurant, and eggs will be freshly prepared every morning.
One everyday material Lucas has fixated on for decades is pantyhose. This fabric takes on an unsettling alien spirit in the series, Bunny Gets Snookered (1997), first shown in the gallery of Sadie Cole, Lucas’ dealer and close friend. Lucas stuffed tights with cotton-like kapok fluff and sat them on chairs, and placed them on or around a snooker table. Resembling sultry, rabbit-like figures, the nylon skins slump in their seats, appearing worn out, perhaps abused by long-gone miscreants.
Lucas describes much of her work as accidental, and it was one discarded pantyhose bunny that unexpectedly led her, in 2009, to begin her ongoing series, NUDS. These sculptures, resting on cinder block pedestals, fill the museum’s third floor (“It’s almost a forest of NUDS that you encounter,” says Norton.) At first, Lucas filled tights with fluff and twisted them into tight forms that resemble humans embracing. Then she began casting them in bronze, turning them into hard, shiny, more desirable objects.
Depending on the “NUD,” certain parts of these sculptures can resemble breasts, penises, and other sexualized human parts. It’s a weird, confusing figuring of the body that can be uncomfortable to gaze upon. Lucas, though, isn’t intent on shocking her viewer as much as simply finding joy in her creations, which have given her decades of companionship. “We have a good old laugh together,” she once said of her art.
It’s impossible to not see Au Naturel as a timely exhibition given today’s moment of cultural reckoning. Lucas’ survey especially resonates as a funny exploration of gender norms during what is an especially unfunny time to be a woman. It is disturbing to know that the voices of many women, for myriad reasons, continue to be silenced. Dismantling all expectations, Lucas’ impulse to be loud and naughty is a delicious treat. As Norton puts it, “It’s a rudeness that is very much needed.”
Disclosure: VICE Media is a media partner of Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel at the New Museum.
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