Perverse materialism

With her New Museum retrospective, Sarah Lucas (almost) breaks free from the YBA generation, excelling with British toilet humor that speaks directly to the senses.

Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, 2018, exhibition view, New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

A pair of three-meter tall stripper boots towers proudly over the museum-goers in the window of New Museum’s lobby. The sculpture is conceived in poured and untreated concrete, giving it a raw and decidedly dirty appearance. Presented on a baby pink plinth, with the vaguely personifying title Vox Pop Doris (2018), the work pulls the viewer back and forth between a reading as symbol or as object, as representation or as material. You can’t help to smile, and even giggle quietly over the imposing and uncompromising way that this enormous, clichéd symbol of femininity makes itself present in the space. And this is exactly how the British artist Sarah Lucas for over 30 years have worked with motifs: humorous, playful and with a slight perversion, her gaze (and hands) drift from tree logs and food items to trash, garments and furniture, wherein she discovers body parts and gender symbols, genitals in particular. The 44-year old sculptor is currently subject of her first institutional mid-career retrospective – an exhibition that creates a well-deserved overview of Lucas’ uncompromising pursuit of sensuality.

New Museum’s exhibition spaces, connected by elevator, are known to excel mostly on the premise of its architecture, making a chronological movement through a retrospective exhibition difficult. Luckily, in the case of Lucas, this isn’t such an issue. From her first art school experiments with studio debris to her newest works, you see a clear red thread of motifs: cigarettes, furniture, stockings and dicks.

Sarah Lucas, Pepsi & Cocky #8, 2009. C-print. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

I commence on the 4th floor, where Divine (1991) takes up the entire back wall – a photographic self-portrait of the artist clad in the quintessential grunge uniform: jeans, a white t-shirt and a leather jacket. Lucas’ butch persona overlooks a sparse installation of phalluses. Two body-less concrete penises, Priapus and Eros, (both 2013), shoots up erectly from crushed cars, while a sports car split in two, This Jaguar is Going to Heaven (2018),is covered entirely in Marlborocigarettes, bending according to the curves of the car’s exterior in a serpentine fashion. In the corner, the early video work Sausage Film (1990) depicts the artist sitting placed by a garden table slowly consuming a fat sausage with overwhelming endurance.

Car – cigarette – sausage – dick. There isn’t, as such, “more” in Lucas’ symbolism. It’s an approachable simplicity that gives an echo to the somewhat derogatory term “Art Lite”, once used to the describe the generation of Young British Artists that she grew up alongside. Beyond engaging capitalism’s cult of personality, the YBA’s also loved to make jokes, most often in the form of sculptures. On the other hand, art history was never good at dealing with humor – particularly the humor of female artists, like when Lucas visualizes desire, which can both feel mundane and cliché-ridden.

The exhibition’s didactics explains how Lucas’ works “subverts traditional ideas of gender, sexuality and identity.” But that’s a superficial observation, as the works function not so much as an intellectualized subversion as a playful immersion into corporeality and desire most generally. While the top floor is dedicated to phallus, the third floor is devoted entirely to yoni.

Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, 2018, exhibition view, New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

Her collection of lower-part of female bodies cast in plaster are displayed in a bright yellow room, the same warm and encouraging color that decorated the British Pavilion in Venice, where they were first shown in 2015. These works are decidedly funny. It’s women caught sitting, leaning, bending, humping furniture and industrial objects, puking in a toilet bowl, lounging on top of chest freezers, or awaiting seducingly on a kitchen chair. A single cigarette pokes out from a pair of butt cheeks. It’s all quite abject and trivial, what you in England would call a tweesensibility – a kind of cozy malaise, which, if anything, constitutes the very essence of British Humor. This is felt particularly in Lucas’ very earliest works, which are spread across the lower floor of the exhibition in one, extended cabinet of curiosities.

Sarah Lucas, Bunny Gets Snookered #8, 1997. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

In Two Fried Eggs and A Kebab (1992), food items are arranged in the cracks of a kitchen table so that it subtly outlines the contours of a female body with two boobs and a vulva. One repeatedly feels the urge to laugh of how lame, perverse and gross Lucas is. The syntax in her work are structured like empty punch lines, which still, in their simplicity, produce multiverses of meaning and images. “But everything is language, also objects,” Lucas herself has said about her practice. The artist skillfully mimics the possibilities of semantics through materials. This is particularly felt in her photographic self portraits, like Self-Portrait With Skull, 2007, where you catch yourself starring directly into a human skull placed directly in front of the artist’s own genitals. “It could be the vagina as an eye. Or the brain as a black hole,” dreams Lucas, triggering free association over the many layered meanings of the work.

Sarah Lucas, Au Naturel, 1994. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

It’s particularly as a materialist that Lucas truly emerges as one of the great artists of her generation. Her DIY-approach to sculpture expresses an unapologetic enthusiasm for the material, its possibilities and its composition; the pure joy of working with “stuff” until it finds its own form. As a viewer one is immersed fully into her series NUDS (2009), comprised by variations of stuffed stockings on plinths, resembling intestines, clinging bodies, and, well, more penises. The stocking as a gendered object is evoked directly in her other series of titillating, stocking-dressed chairs (Bunnies, 1997); but Lucas simultaneously encourages us to suspend habitual iconographic readings for just a moment, and to instead weigh a material’s physicality with ones own body: soft, tights, rough, heavy, fragile, stiff, dangling.

Another series of sculptures, with titles such as Druid, Swan and The King hails from the time when Lucas moved to the bucolic Suffolk in Eastern England. In these works, urban debris is replaced with wooden bits, branches and stones – elements that are anthropomorphized with similar facility in her hands. A wooden log becomes a penis; a cleaved branch a female crotch; and small fruit stones to testicles.

Lucas engages these motifs but never enforces any larger political critique. As the American author Maggie Nelson writes in the catalog, Lucas’ faith to form and material trumps all intellectual dogmas – including the feminist, the psychoanalytical and the surrealist. Instead, she pursues fantasies, daydreams and the anatomy of desire as it manifests in nature, materials and objects. As all human beings, she often comes across as contradictory, problematic, vague and uncertain. But her rash and sensorial approach is so effective that it’s convincing. To be Au Naturel, the title of the exhibition as well as Lucas’ most famous work, is, in the end, not so much about what it means to be a “natural” woman (or man), but instead of what it means to forge a direct and porous intimacy with one’s physical surroundings; what Freud once described as “the oceanic feeling”.

Lucas’ perverse materialism speaks to the very core of how it feels to be a desiring human being in this world. It’s also this directness that makes her newer, megalomaniac sculptures from the exhibition’s top floor feel hyperbolic. The spectacular tableaus of cigarette-covered automobiles could easily have been conceived by several of her old classmates, first and foremost the defamed butterfly man Damien Hirst. Sarah Lucas should stay far away from capitalism’s spectacular formalism. She functions best – and really well – when the focus is instead on the body and its deep and curious oceans of feeling.

Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, 2018, exhibition view, New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.