Sarah Lucas is an artist I’ve admired for decades but I’ve only been able to see individual pieces or photographs. Her survey at the Hammer Museum, Au Naturel, offers an opportunity to see the British artist’s 30-year exploration of sex as power, and vice versa.
Of course, the exhibition is timely in ways that couldn’t be anticipated when Massimiliano Gioni and Margot Norton, curators at the New Museum in New York, began organizing the show. Who could foresee this country’s all out assault on women’s rights, which has so become apparent in the past two years?
Lucas, however, is no victim. Since the early 1990s, she has been the sort of woman and artist who defied the tacit restrictions that cropped up around what a Feminist artist could and could not get away with. Instead, she grabbed the strategies implicit in the art of men to make her sharp-edged statements.
And, she did so with the sort of dry, wicked humor that is endemic to the British. You see it in the Lucas t-shirt for sale in the gift shop that proclaims: “Selfish in Bed.”
Lucas, now 56, first gained attention with other so-called Young British Artists, or YBAs, such as Damien Hirst, in the early 1990s. Their raucous, anti-establishment approach was refreshing in a country that still held dear the enduring values of traditional art. She, too, studied at Goldsmith’s, the hot art school in London of the 1980s.
It was a loose curriculum, perfect for an artist finding her way. Though she and artist Tracy Emins took a commercial space that they called The Shop, she didn’t bother getting a studio — too expensive — and learned to make work out of what was at hand. That included the 1992 pair of fried eggs and a kebab suggestively arranged on a wooden table and recreated daily at the Hammer. (Even as a successful artist, she works on the kitchen table in her Suffolk home.)
Lucas’s own remarks about her work are posted on the gallery walls, along with the standard museum didactics, and deserve attention. While she believes in critical thinking, she can put it aside in favor of the immediate response and the well- considered object. She quips, “earnestness and hard work are to be regarded with suspicion.”
Hammer curator Anne Ellegood has arranged the work according to themes and relationships, not chronology, which works really well in the museum galleries. Lucas’ photographic works —tabloid collages of the early ‘90s, “self-portraits” taken by other people but presented as her own — are on the walls.
But three-dimensional space and sculpture based on common objects, with all their theatrical implications, are her strength. Surrealism of the 1920s is the backdrop for the alteration of the everyday in erotic and disturbing ways. You can see the indirect influence of other women especially the art of Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim or Louise Bourgeois.
The exhibition is titled after her 1994 tableau of an old mattress bent between the wall and the floor. A pair of melons with an empty bucket and a pair of oranges arranged on either side of an erect cucumber are surrogates for the man and woman.
Disgusting and funny, it lives up to its name Au Naturel, the French phrase for being in the nude.
Lucas does indeed lay it bare here and everywhere in this show. There is the Bunnies series of 1997, made with stuffed pantyhose stuck on office chairs with multiple legs jotting in all directions so the focus is pretty much in only one place. The smashed carcass of a car is topped with a huge white plaster phallus. The plaster casts of naked women are bent over toilets, to wretch, or tables in sexual offering.
Among the strongest series in the show is Penetralia, which begins in 2008. Instead of lamenting, criticizing or arguing about the power of patriarchy, Lucas seizes it, literally. Like the groupie plaster casters of Sunset Strip rock clubs, she has memorialized the male members of lovers, friends and blokes from the pub. These plaster phalluses relate to ancient sculpture, Indian lingams and outsized dildos. They point quite literally to the source — real, imagined or culturally determined — of power, and appropriate it. At the Hammer, they are commandingly installed before an amber colored gallery containing her recent Nuds, stuffed, rounded, emphatically female forms, mostly made of tights stuffed with fluff, that wind around upon themselves. The exhaulted art of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth is reenergized in her hands. In the midst of this gathering, a hemispherical nest made of net spheres, like breasts, hangs in space, as inviting as a bizarre swing.
Brazen yet unpretentious, Lucas uses her art to undermine all manner of expectations: political, sexual, moral and aesthetic.
Her bold survey at the Hammer is a tonic that is not to be missed. It is on view through September 1.