Sarah Lucas: SITUATION
Absolute Beach Man Rubble
at Whitechapel Gallery, London
By Floriana Piqué
From When Does it All End?, 1994, a small irreverent wax sculpture of a grinning mouth with cigarette butt, to the absolute beauty of the latest cast bronzes we can follow a path into the life and work of Sarah Lucas through this retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Articulated in three different sections and spaces this show finds the common denominator in Lucas’s work to be constant presence of the artist’s portraits.
Born in London in 1962, Sarah Lucas attended Goldsmiths, University of London between 1984 and 1987. Her early artistic activity was intrinsically linked to the experience of a generation of artists later known as YBA (Young British Artists), including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Gary Hume to name just a few. Sharing days and nights of art and life, these artists were able to organize exhibitions curated by one of them (for example, Freeze, 1988, curated by Damien Hirst) in derelict, unusual spaces. In the same spirit Sarah Lucas opened The Shop with Tracey Emin in 1993, in an empty retail outlet in a seedy area of East London to show their works.
All this activity sowed the seeds of change of the cultural attitude towards visual art in London.
This process saw the beginning of an extraordinary evolution that consolidated in the years to come with the opening of new museums, private galleries, and art fairs that attracted a new breed of sophisticated collectors.
In 1997 the exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists in the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy, London and in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum, New York reaffirmed the impact on the art scene of this generation of artists while broadening the appeal and popularity of their works and of their individual personalities.
That exhibition gave us a hint of the different paths these strong individuals had already taken and for Sarah Lucas it meant her unique, original journey into sculpture.
Her first solo exhibition was held at City Racing in 1992. Since then she has had numerous solo exhibitions; the major ones include: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1996; Car Park, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 1997; Tate Liverpool; Kunsthalle Zurich, Kunstverein Hamburg, 2005; LUCAS-BOSCH-GELATIN, Kunsthalle Krems, Austria, 2011; Ordinary Things, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 2012 and SITUATION, Sadie Coles HQ London, 2012-2013, a year long project of eight situations created on the top floor of the gallery.
Sarah Lucas participated in the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2013.
In the large hall of the Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona Blazwick director of Whitechapel and curator of this exhibition, presents in a vivid, charged atmosphere some iconic works from the last two decades together with new configurations of staged works, like Soup, 1989/2013, a huge wallpaper covering an entire side. Juxtaposed to this enlarged reproduction is a black and white photographic portrait of the artist, Eating a Banana, 1990. The content of Soup, 1989 is a vegetable soup where the main ingredient has an explicit sexual reference.
Autobiographical attitude and interest in the representation of the body, mainly through an immediate reference to the sexual organs constitute the underlying themes of Lucas’s work. Her crude reduction of the male body to merely its sexual organs is achieved through a raw vision that doesn’t indulge in any sort of eroticism. Gigantic phallic sculptures stand as direct representations while in other works various edible items stand as symbolic representations.
In the second gallery an entire room painted in blood red is wallpapered in blow-ups of a naked male torso. The explicit play of nudity and the interaction of objects – a beer can, a slice of red meat, a cucumber, oranges and onions, a milk bottle…- blur the borders of the single image and recall on purpose, in its overall effect, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion.
Headless bodies always and everywhere; the only face is the one of the artist. A defiant look, a cigarette between her lips as in Fighting Fire with Five Channel 4 Poster, 1999, a billboard poster in four panels, or eating a banana to oppose sexism as in Great Dates, 1991/2013, a large wallpaper reproducing pages of popular British tabloids, staged here with Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, a portrait of the artist with two fried eggs on her breasts, and Sex Baby Bed Base, 2000, metal bed base, chicken, T-shirt, lemons, coat hanger, or a pensive, intense gaze as in Self-Portrait with Skull, 1996, a portrait of the artist with a skull between her feet, installed on top of a stair like an altarpiece, a vanitas of our times.
In many works Sarah Lucas uses objects of everyday use found in the street: stained mattresses, old wooden tables, discarded toilets, coat hangers, metal bed bases, leather sofas…Here the action of the artist rescues the objet trouve’ and brings it to a new level.
Sarah Lucas summarizes femininity and stylizes the female body in a crude way: works like Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992, items laid on an old wooden table, Spinster, 2000, a stained mattress, a hanger with two fried eggs, a sliced herring or Au Naturel, 1994, two melons and a rusty water bucket on a mattress counteract the stereotyped image of women.
Nylon tights filled with kapok, allusive to headless female bodies and to limbs slouching on wooden chairs populate a group of seminal works that shift Lucas’s attention and style towards a more complex vision of the body as in Bunny Gets Snookered #1, 1997.
This change of technique is a step towards a greater change. As the curator Iwona Blazwick writes in the catalogue: “What we encounter is a change of register. Lucas’ early works assemble found objects such as clothing, furniture and food; her later sculptures use the techniques of casting and construction to take one step into abstraction”.
In 2009 Sarah Lucas starts NUDS, a series of new works, sculptures where stuffed tights on plinths of concrete breeze blocks assume polymorphic shapes.
Recently, casted in bronze, NUDS have gone beyond representation to become pure, polished, shining forms.
Suggestions of, allusions to limbs of female and male bodies embrace entwined, entangled, breasts and genitalia melt one into the other in the eternal fight between Eros and Thanatos.
The third gallery at Whitechapel, which opens with Self-Portrait, 2000, outlined in cigarettes on brown paper, shows in all their sculpted, elegant morphism, the cast bronzes NUDS 2013 like Nduda, Realidad, Hoolian, Nahuiollin.
The Giardino Scarpa in the Padiglione Centrale of the Venice Biennale 2013, entirely installed with and dedicated to a group of these bronzes, revealed in its stillness a new dimension and a new intention in Sarah Lucas’ work, the same that we feel here now in this other space.
This retrospective and the recent works find a echo in what she writes in the catalogue:”
“…I wanted art to be a consequence of my life rather than a job or profession “.
Sarah Lucas: SITUATION. Absolute Beach Man Rubble, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until December 15, 2013
Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.
Cover: Sarah Lucas
Patrick More, 2013
Private Collection London
Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, Venice Biennale, 2013,
Padiglione Centrale, Giardino Scarpa
Copyright: The Artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
Photography: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano
Self-Portrait with Skull, 1996
Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
SITUATION Absolute Beach Rubble
Whitechapel Gallery London
photocredit: Stephen White