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 in Artforum), or YBAs. Saatchi—whose habit of buying and selling art en masse could make him a Svengali-like figure for emerging artists—began sponsoring Hirst, and three years later would commission his career-making shark vitrine for £50,000. But Lucas herself fell out of view; her work from the first iteration of the show was one of the few pieces not to sell. As she later told an interviewer, she saw the men getting attention and their careers taking off, including her boyfriend at the time, Gary Hume, and just “got angry.” She threw out her supplies and stopped making art for a year. Eventually, she began “tinkering around” with new, easily found materials like newspaper, the stakes lower since she had “already given up.”

In Lucas’s breakthrough pieces of the early 1990s—well represented in the “Au Naturel” exhibition, now at UCLA’s Hammer Museum—anger is the dominant note. Some of these deploy a working-class defiance while also poking fun at it: Concrete Boots (1993) consists of a cast-concrete pair of work boots; 1-123-123-12-12 (1991) features Doc Martens with razor blades embedded in front; a wax cast of Lucas’s sneering mouth with a cigarette clamped in her teeth is called Where Does It All End? (1994). I’m really quite dangerous, they seem to say. You should consider crossing the street. The Odd Couple (1991) consists of two wooden chairs with off-putting additions: one has a wax cast of a penis glued to the seat and the other a set of false teeth.

Lucas was picked up by a gallerist, Sadie Coles, who still represents her. Her works from that period have a savage ingenuity, and can feel like a cultural critique or a well-timed joke. Au Naturel (1994), the deadpan assemblage for which the new show is named, consists of an old mattress slumped against the wall, the bodies of male and female lovers lying side by side on it crudely suggested by two oranges and an upright cucumber for the man, a couple of melons and an old bucket for the woman. This piece isn’t a one-liner—a standard complaint leveled against the Young British Artists—but it is a classic example of Lucas’s bawdy humor, her harsh metonyms, and her gift for reductio ad absurdum. Au Naturel is a gentle work compared to Bitch (1995), in which a T-shirt stretched over a table end and hung with melons and a plastic-wrapped fish at the other end stands in (or rather, bends over) for a woman.

Advertisement

These works draw much of their transgressive power from Lucas’s seizing sexist language, imagery, and stereotypes and bending them to her own ends. She would go on to freely objectify men (as in her photographic series of domestic objects mimicking a man’s genitals—meat, milk bottles, a beer can held at the crotch, spraying foam) and to stomp on gender conventions in her big, phallus-appropriating combat boots. The cumulative effect of so much irreverence is a kind of tender attention—in both artist and viewer—to the humanity in her biomorphic forms, self-portraits, and plaster-cast sculptures from life: for example, the Lionhearts (1995–1999), a series of life-size sculptures of testicles in different materials, and the many plaster phalli in the Penetralia series. Even her sagging resin toilets elicit empathy, with their warped bowls like drooping mouths and their pipes leading nowhere.

Born in 1962, Lucas was raised on a council estate (public housing) in North London, the daughter of a milkman and a mother who worked as a cleaner and part-time gardener. Both her parents were handy: her father knew carpentry and her mother taught Lucas to garden, cook, and sew. She left home at sixteen and lived in squats in South London, becoming involved in the Squatters’ Movement and related protests. The idealism and community spirit of that period have been a lasting influence for Lucas, who often works collaboratively.

The early projects of the YBAs were part of that spirit. (“It’s not that ‘Freeze’ was particularly good,” Saatchi has said. “What really stood out was the hopeful swagger of it all.”) After her year of art-abstinence, Lucas emerged a different artist. She began working with materials and ideas near at hand: sex, objectification, misogyny, and working-class tabloid culture. She co-organized a group show in a Docklands warehouse, and then two solo shows fell into her lap. At one of these—“Penis Nailed to a Board,” held at City Racing, an artist-run gallery, in the spring of 1992—she stunned visitors with wall-sized photocopy collages based on a sleazy, now-defunct tabloid, Sunday Sport. Sod You Gits (1990) and Fat, Forty and Flabulous (1990) both sexualize supposedly freakish female bodies—the small (“topless midget Sharon Lewis” in Sod You Gits) and the large and fleshy. When “Au Naturel” was at the New Museum, people lingered to read the article fragments. The small collage for which the 1992 show was named is an unplayable board game drawn from a Sport article that published the names and photographs of members of a consensual sadomasochistic gay sex ring exposed in a police sting.

At another early show, Lucas displayed her first table piece, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992): a crass representation of breasts and female genitals on a tabletop that seemed an attack on sculpture itself.1 To her surprise, Charles Saatchi bought it. He would go on to collect and promote her work throughout the 1990s. When Saatchi eventually sold off his Lucas hoard, Damien Hirst picked it up. After “Freeze,” other artists now associated with the Young British Artists began to exhibit with the group, including Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, Sam Taylor-Wood, Rachel Whiteread, the Chapman Brothers, and Marc Quinn. With little to no unity in style or subject matter, Young British Art (sometimes referred to as BritArt) can be characterized by an openness to materials and methods—e.g., Lucas’s many toilets and Marc Quinn’s Self, an ongoing series of frozen casts of his head made from his own blood—a roiling of pop culture and Conceptual Art, an entrepreneurial (some say careerist) spirit in art-making and promotion, and a shared attitude of ironic detachment. And YBAs loved the shock factor: “If art doesn’t assault you visually, then it’s not going to get your attention,” said Hirst.

Journalists mocked the group’s publicity savvy while clearly enjoying the spectacle, whether it was brawling in nightclubs (Lucas could be “a violent and aggressive drunk” in those years, she has said) or confessional art like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998), which she notoriously submitted for the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition, complete with vodka bottles, used condoms, and worn underwear.2 (Emin won lasting fame but not the Turner.) In contrast, Lucas openly derides celebrity culture and the visibility courted by some of her peers. She has twice declined to be shortlisted for the Turner.

Advertisement

For six months in 1993, Lucas and Emin channeled their brief, volatile friendship into “The Shop” on Bethnal Green Road: they customized cheap items, painting rude slogans on T-shirts, for example, and putting photographs of Hirst’s face at the bottom of ashtrays. Emin and Lucas kept the shop open all night on Saturdays, and it became a favorite destination for pub-goers after closing time.

At a group show at the Karsten Schubert Gallery in 1992, Lucas debuted the first in a series of tough, blokey photographic self-portraits—her “Bitch-Androgyne” persona, as artist Angus Fairhurst, a former boyfriend, called it. In the flatly titled Eating a Banana (1990), a black-and-white photograph of Lucas doing just that, she offers a blatant sexual allusion while seeming to dare the viewer to sexualize her or the pose. The androgynous style fit her confrontational works as they emerged through the Nineties—a slightly warped mirror for the male gaze. Lucas’s unsmiling stare reads as a death glare, even when she has fried eggs on her chest.

Interestingly, the “self-portraits” are collaborative, in that they have usually been shot by the men Lucas was living with at the time—first Gary Hume, who also posed for her Still Life series of images, then Fairhurst, and now her current partner, artist and composer Julian Simmons. For an installation at the Freud Museum in London in 2000—an inspired pairing of artist and venue—Lucas hung an enormous close-cropped self-portrait (taken by Fairhurst) in the alcove behind the famous consulting couch. At its center, her nipple peeps through a hole in her ratty T-shirt. Fairhurst had noticed the hole as she climbed out of bed with him and called her attention to it. She titled the photo Prière de Toucher (Please Touch, 2000)—a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s eponymous breast image for the cover of Le Surréalisme en 1947. She likes Surrealist-inspired titles and the occasional puzzle: Receptacle of Lurid Things, for example, is from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. At first glance, Prière de Toucher seems simply irreverent: a two-finger salute to Freud and his mixed legacy on female sexual expression. But there are many ways to read the portrait—the Dada/Surrealist origins of her isolation of body parts, or the invitation to consider the body inside the T-shirt: the hint of warmth, the fug of the well-worn cloth.

One can trace various influences from or arguments with earlier artists in Lucas’s oeuvre—most obviously the Situationists (in her early collages), with their hijacking and recontextualizing of advertisements and comics, Marcel Duchamp, and Hans Bellmer. Lucas’s breast chair, Mumum (2012), suggests the sculptor Eva Hesse’s pendulous breast-like forms and Louise Bourgeois’s soft sculptures, as well as Dorothea Tanning’s more controlled fabric work of the 1970s. More recently, Lucas’s Maradonas—monumental resin recumbent figures (2015–present) named for the Argentine football great Diego Maradona—feature enormous erections but also incorporate breast- and scrotum-like appendages. “I love mixing up the sexes,” Lucas has said. “I love that you can never get to the bottom of it.”

But Lucas discourages talk of influence. Her toilets have more to do with a childhood dream than with Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), she says. Her easy-to-find domestic materials and economy of form may be a legacy of the Arte Povera movement, but she rarely makes work in open dialogue with earlier art, or even with her contemporaries. She does admire the Austrian artist Franz West—the two were collaborating on an installation at the time of his death in 2012—and if you unrolled one of her Nuds, the sculptures she began making in 2009, you might end up with a West, lumpy and worm-like, with places to sit.

Lucas has spoken often about her mid-career “Eureka!” moment: the creation of her Bunnies—pliable, stripped-down emblems of the feminine, which gave birth to the Nuds and Maradonas. She had been playing with a pair of stuffed women’s tights left over from another project: “I hung them on the back of a chair to see how they were shaping up and Bunny stared back at me.” An assemblage made from chairs, kapok filling, and three (sometimes more) pairs of women’s tights, the basic Bunny consists of stuffed “ears” clipped to a chair back, a pair of limp, dangling arms, and stuffed legs flopping open. They have no heads, but some of them wear thigh-highs on their stocking legs: a kind of über-stocking that underscores their sexuality. One of the Bunnies appeared in Lucas’s section of “Sensation,” the Royal Academy’s blockbuster 1997 exhibition of Saatchi’s collection of BritArt that marked the YBA’s acceptance into the mainstream of British art.3

Black and White Bunny #1, artwork by Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas/Sadie Coles HQ, London

Sarah Lucas: Black and White Bunny #1, 1997

There is something miraculous in Lucas’s Bunnies, something expressive that transcends and is part of their floppy vulnerability. They “bulge with latent energy,” as the art historian Whitney Chadwick remarks in her catalog essay on Lucas’s place in the Surrealist tradition. (The essays in the excellent catalog for “Au Naturel”—by Chadwick, Linda Nochlin, Maggie Nelson, and others—do more than trace her origins and development; they grapple in interesting ways with gender and sexual politics, Lucas’s relationship with language, and the ghosts of Dada and Surrealism that pervade her work.) This magic—the “spark” for which Lucas is always looking—dims a little in the later Bunny variants, like her Bunny plastered with eyes (Hysterical Attack (Eyes), 1999), but emerges powerfully in her Nuds. One day at her Suffolk cottage (once owned by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears), Lucas and Simmons found an “old screwed-up Bunny” in the shed. A series of new forms emerged over the next few days, “very naturally, all different,” she comments in the catalog. “Slightly lewd in their nakedness.”

These first Nuds (their name comes from “in the nuddy,” her mother’s baby talk for “nude”) exist on a different plane from most of Lucas’s work—even a different plane from their interesting later iterations in bronze and resin. Soft tubes of cotton- and wire-stuffed tights, often rising from a coiled base for balance, they bulge and snake around one another, some coils terminating in nipple-like ends, others disappearing into the complexity of the knot. Like the Bunnies, these are most successful as soft sculptures—delicate and provisional—despite the tactile appeal of their gleaming successors. The handmade, one-off aesthetic is lost in the cast bronze Nuds and in the Maradonas, and with it that sense of an artist manipulating her materials to try out new forms.

“It’s not really a thinking thing for me,” Lucas has said, describing her process. “It’s really my hands doing it more than my head.” She doesn’t keep a studio or make art every day but borrows space when needed, and often works on-site. She tries to create at least one site-specific piece for each show. For “Au Naturel,” she made This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018) at her friend Matthew Barney’s Long Island City studio, gluing Marlboro Reds to the front half of a 2006 Jaguar sedan, the back half of which she had stuffed with hay and torched. The large gallery in which Jaguar is installed also features other car sculptures and monumental cast-concrete pricks leaning on crushed cars.

Although Lucas is expanding her formal domain, as she did in the 1990s and in 2009 with the Nuds, these recent sculptures lack energy. They cannot compete with the enormous self-portraits surrounding them (especially the jaw-dropping Chicken Knickers, from 1997, in which the slack, emptied body cavity of a plucked chicken stands in for female genitalia) or with the powerful rhythmic patterns of her crucified Christ in fiberglass and cigarettes mounted against a bold red (or black, at the Hammer Museum) cross on a wall. When first exhibited at Tate Britain’s 2004 three-person show of Lucas, Damien Hirst, and Angus Fairhurst, this piece, Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003), was hung lower, almost within reach. The Hammer chooses to reproduce this low hanging. At the New Museum, though, it dominated the gallery from high up—a controlled yet ecstatic exercise in commodity fetishism. As a sculptural medium, cigarettes carry the same erotic charge, for Lucas, as the male bodies from which she casts the plethora of penises in her work.

The New Museum show opened the same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and more than one critic suggested that “Au Naturel,” the largest survey yet for Lucas, was—or could have been—a Me Too moment. Critical response to the show has ranged from feminist fist-pumping to sour disdain at the “aging” of a body of work once billed as shocking. The Financial Times critic judged it “oddly out of tune with the time,” in part due to Lucas’s continuing sculptural preoccupation with the phallus (dismissed as “highbrow dildos”). The headline of another review announced that Lucas’s “tired feminism is no match for our current reality.” Martha Schwendener’s balanced New York Times review also considered Lucas’s relevance: “She was part of one cultural correction around class and gender in Britain and now we’re in another, with disintegrating borders, genders and species categories—even glaciers—in which white European ennui feels almost like a luxury product.”

Unlike Britain, America does not have a long tradition of visual satire. We are often unsure what to do with political art in general, beyond agitprop like the Gran Fury graphics (e.g., Silence=Death), which intentionally left little room for interpretation. Do Lucas’s whimsy and her ribald puns undermine her critique? If Me Too requires unambiguous statements, they do. Her art is not a perpetual flame of feminist rage. Nor is it especially offensive to anyone familiar with late-twentieth-century or contemporary art. We have so internalized the importance of “the shock of the new” in art, though, that when critics approve of Sarah Lucas they tend to pronounce her work “still shocking.”

The question remains: If shock value is central to Lucas’s art, what survives after the shock has worn off? Her rudeness and irreverence still feel fresh, as does her exploration of the vulnerable human body. Her ongoing deflation of cultural norms and received attitudes—even her rejection of “earnestness and hard work,” as she puts it—never gets old, since it springs from one of the main engines of change in art: ridicule. Connected with this, of course, is her effortless appropriation of the dominant power symbol, the phallus, for her own brand of anarchic comedy. Inside one of the manuscript notebooks for The Hours (which would become Mrs. Dalloway), Virginia Woolf jotted to herself, “A delicious idea comes to me that I will write anything I want to write.” Lucas makes and exhibits anything she wants.

After a retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2013, Lucas created the show “I Scream Daddio” for the 2015 Venice Biennale, painting the walls of the British pavilion an egg-yolk yellow, “a sea of custard,” as she wrote. At the pavilion’s entrance, she positioned a kind of mascot: an immense yellow cast-resin sculpture, Gold Cup Maradona, its up-thrust nine-foot erection like a beacon. The New Museum had an eggy wall, in this case from an egg-throwing event Lucas staged in September for her piece One Thousand Eggs (for Women) (2018), a reprisal of a similar event in Mexico, filmed by Julian Simmons, at which Lucas handed out eggs while wearing trousers with a sagging, oversized phallus stitched to the front.

The egg goes back to our sources, of course, the germ of female energy, of generative power, and the waste of it as well. Despite the dozens of penises and suggested penises in “Au Naturel,” one of the most arresting works in the show is the short film by Simmons (in collaboration with Lucas), Egg Massage (2015), a New Year’s Eve performance for a few friends in Sadie Coles’s kitchen.4 Lucas breaks egg after egg over Simmons’s body as he lies naked on the table, then rubs them into his skin. When he rolls onto his back, she matter-of-factly massages his genitals, stretching the skin taut over his testes to make the visual analogy to eggs more direct. Her hands look strong and efficient, like Gordon Ramsay working cold butter into dough. The feminist reversals in this intimate, multivalent film might reward critical study. It is also strangely moving, and shows how far Lucas has come from her razor-blade boots. Egg Massage draws on primal themes and emotions: creative power, trust, and connection. The shock, in this case, of the ancient.

  1. 1

    The eggs and doner kebab are always fresh when the piece is on exhibit; they are cooked and replaced on the table daily. You can watch Lucas do this herself in a 1996 BBC documentary by Vanessa Engle, Two Melons and a Stinking Fish

  2. 2

    My Bed was among the hundreds of artworks lost in a 2004 fire at a North London art storage facility. Emin has said that Saatchi offered her £1 million to recreate it. She declined. 

  3. 3

    Marcus Harvey’s portrait of child-killer Myra Hindley brought a public outcry and was almost cut from the Royal Academy show. Protests also erupted over Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-and-porn-plastered Madonna when the show traveled to Brooklyn in 1999—diverting attention away from Lucas and almost everything else in the show. 

  4. 4

    Simmons screened eight egg films of Lucas (including Egg Massage) in May 2019 at the Venice Biennale.