Shock Artistry

Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel

an exhibition at the New Museum, New York City, September 26, 2018–January 20, 2019; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 9–September 1, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Massimiliano Gioni and Margot Norton
Phaidon/New Museum, 239 pp., $79.95
Au Naturel, artwork by Sarah Lucas
Sarah Lucas/Sadie Coles HQ, London
Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, 1994

The art of the British sculptor Sarah Lucas seems to operate on a sliding scale between anger and whimsy. At one end are works like Receptacle of Lurid Things (1991), a life-size flesh-colored wax cast of what we assume to be a middle finger—raised at the art audience? At patriarchy? At everyone?—and at the other is Sex Baby Bed Base (2000), a mattress spring frame from which Lucas has hung (on a wire clothes hanger) a small sleeveless T-shirt, the fabric sliced in front to admit a couple of lemons, pushed through from behind, as bared breasts. The lower half of this rough-and-ready female simulacrum is completed by a rubber chicken. The whole assemblage feels fun, cheap, and provisional: open to interpretation, and not giving a damn. To walk through Lucas’s first major American retrospective, “Au Naturel,” is to move across this emotional register with her: stirred, amused, and to some extent implicated in her willful incorrectness and smirking, post-punk critique of everyday sexism.

Lucas’s first important show was at twenty-six, after she graduated from art school at Goldsmiths, University of London. Called “Freeze,” this now-legendary three-part exhibition in 1988 was organized by her friend and fellow student Damien Hirst, who was still an undergraduate. Hirst, Lucas, and more than a dozen of their friends took over a dilapidated Port of London Authority building in the London docklands and refurbished it themselves—the kind of DIY project that came to characterize the era. The title signified “now,” “of the moment.” The centerpiece was Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole, an eight-by-twelve-foot backlit transparency in fifteen frames of a bloody head wound; he’d gotten the image from a pathology textbook. Anya Gallaccio’s installation, Waterloo, was made from over two thousand pounds of poured lead (some of which ran molten into her boot, resulting in third-degree burns). More engaged with organizing the show than with producing his own art, Hirst exhibited clusters of wall-mounted cardboard boxes covered in house paint. Not until the third iteration of “Freeze” that summer did he hit on his spot paintings, which continue to generate cash and publicity thirty years after their debut.

Lucas’s contribution was a set of large abstract aluminum sculptures that looked, as she described them later, “somehow crushed up”; as the show kept evolving, she took those away and put up brick walls that “looked like brick-wall paintings.” Sometimes only a trickle of visitors would come through the door, but as word got around they came to include the director of the Tate Gallery, Nicholas Serota; the exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy, Norman Rosenthal; and the powerful collector Charles Saatchi, whose leathery wings soon folded around Damien Hirst.

“Freeze” launched a generation of artists who became known as the Young British Artists (a term coined by Michael Corris…

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