I have been thinking about the artist Sarah Lucas over the last few weeks as her retrospective opened in the New Museum in New York and it is hard not to be curious about how her work, which at times can be about as subtle as a stick in the eye, is accepted in this city where it is rarely shown. Almost from the beginning of her career she was grouped with a loose set of individuals who were mainly students from Goldsmiths, plainly influenced by Bruce Nauman, Jeff Koon’s, Joseph Beuys (and for Lucas and Tracey Emin, add Louise Bourgeois) under the convenient label “Young British Artist” or YBA’s a term with a limited shelf life; most are now in their mid-fifties.
Her first solo show was in the now legendary artist run space, a former betting shop in South London, called City Racing. That arch gambler, Charles Saatchi, bought three of her works for a total of 3,000 pounds, at a discount, in the spirit perhaps of the former venue, erstwhile punters would be proud. These blown up images of nudes from the Sunday Sport, a particularly nasty National Newspaper, were perhaps her most obvious and to my mind uninspired work. But since then her art has spawned a multitude of attitudes and orientations often using mundane materials that owe everything to a life growing up in a North London housing estate (what Americans call “projects”). It is in debt also to the advent of Punk rock and its angry sensibilities and so my interest in the show is the questionable conviction that in order to understand Lucas work, you must also understand British culture in the years of her youth.
For exhibition goers who didn’t have to endure these years my guess is that her body of work might seem bewildering, even narcissistic. I have the nagging belief that it’s both important and necessary to place it in the context of a country that has such a unique history with regard to sexuality, a prudishness towards it, but where to start? I tentatively approach this in a laughably simplistic way. At first thinking about the Victorians to whom a woman bare ankle was tantamount to a sexual crime, the early half of the twentieth century where preparing for war, engaging in it, and then recovering from it depleted resources which lead to the impoverished 1950’s but one where men and women were forced together out of necessity. From around that time until the AID’s epidemic, sex was a preoccupation shrouded in camp laughter; forget the summer of love and hippie ideal of free love, that belonged to the middle classes, well off students and Americans. In Britain it was the risqué postcards from working class seaside resorts, the music hall culture that infiltrated into our Televisions; Frankie Howard in the effete “Up Pompeii” and low budget “Carry On” films made in Pinewood Studio’s. These were characterized by the working class distain for the middle and upper ones, their laugher at homosexuality which was portrayed as a deformation as exclusively male effeminacy without nuance, for the caricature of large breasted and tight waisted women and scripts which overflowed with every type of hackneyed misbehavior. Predictably, they were enormously popular. I don’t remember much about them, but I conjure up images of fruit and fish being part of course jokes, fried breakfasts of suggestive eggs and provocative sausages, endless cigarettes being smoked and discarded; in short the found materials that wove themselves into the dense work of Lucas, laughter being the soundtrack of unease.
The exhibition covers all floors of the New Museum and I can’t help thinking of these pieces as old friends. Lucas is about my age and I lived about 35 miles from her, in very different circumstances, in the Thames Valley where wealthy commuters lived. I was aware of the council estates of course and had spent much time in London and among young people slumming in the Isle of Dogs and in the Cities outer fringes. My friends and I had seen burnt out cars, abandoned cans of extra strong beer and cider, empty tins of Spam, ditched building materials, Stockings, cigarette stubs, discarded chairs, mattresses, broken toilets left on the street. These dissipated items form the core material of Lucas’ bittersweet sculptures. However they are also coded objects, they are a sly wink to the art world, not unlike a modern cartoon film where jokes work on one level to the children and on a second level to the adults. It becomes a preoccupation to read the acerbic references into her work and I admittedly don’t know if it is intended or not or whether I am taking a completely wrong turning in the search for the crux of her body of work. There are walls at which she has thrown eggs, and I instinctively think of the machismo of Richard Serra throwing molten metal against walls. There is the use of a crushed car as a pedestal and I think of John Chamberlin being deviously diminished and the cigarette sculptures of Al Hansen who my wife would spend evenings smoking Pot with in Cologne before we were married, secretly infuriating me. I could go on and on with this kind of investigation and invoking so many real or imagined sources; from Mapplethorpe’s 1982 influential photograph of Louise Bourgeois holding her 1968 phallus sculpture with a defiant twinkle in her eye to Beuys found chairs with the wax being replaced by a penis. Gender identity and sex are key subjects, she is apparently “Selfish in Bed”, and makes sculptures of legs which have orifices with cigarettes inserted, casts of her partner’s penis seem to be everywhere and she presents herself androgynously in her photographs usually in Doctor Martin shoes and paint splattered jeans. On the few occasions I’ve met her she wears no makeup and her thin hair is cut short and apparently worn with indifference, a statement that these things are unimportant. What is important? being an artist who walks a tightrope between being a magpie, hyper alert to the things around her and sometimes acquiring objects from the street for her nest, and seeing art making as being part performance might be her answer, and there is plenty of work in the show that supports this; large scale photographs – self portraits largely with subtle, or not so subtle visual jokes, sculptures which re either cast body parts not unlike Bruce Nauman or found objects which have been slightly manipulated with echo’s again of Beuys, and more recently films of performances, the latter being the weakest link in her catalogue. But her approach to making art is not precious at all, at one notorious art fair she and her friends sat drinking cans of lager which were then turned into a crude penis form, a soccer hooligans trick, except they were being sold for an absurd sum and have now found their way into the New Museum show. And my concern that this would not go down well with a New York audience was well founded, the reaction from some of my friends ran the gamut from vitriolic to dismissive charges of being derivative.
With output like this, context is not just important, it’s key. Mary and I once saw her work by chance in Mexico City in the Diego Rivera museum of Pre-Columbia art and we were mesmerized. There was something that made sense placing this vital and combustible work next to the Pre-Colombian art pieces of Rivera’s collection. Strangely I also thought of Phillip Guston, something about the collision of urgency, sensuality and the ordinary. The Pre-Colombian work also burned with energy and life, but also holds a very human, very real, vulgarity to our modern sensibilities and something of that frightening, obscene quality can be found with Lucas.
There is also a huge streak of Punk in her approach, much more obvious than any of her YBA peers. A few weeks earlier I had her work on my mind while attending a talk in the New York Public Library with the Mexican artist Gabrielle Orozco, an endlessly dull event. The interviewer fawning and patronizing and the interviewee, full of self-aggrandizement with an elevated opinion of his career talked together in a low humorless drone. Was I alone in needing to suppress a laugh when he mentioned for the second or third time that he now lived in Bali? Or when at the end of the long evening a question by Matthew Barney asking “what his most vulnerable piece of work was?” His reply, a ball of children’s clay rolled around a street collecting trash. It was exactly this nonsense that artists like Sarah Lucas raged against when they emerged in the early 1990’s in London in the same way that a generation earlier, the Punks, had targeted college rock bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd for the same bland pretentiousness.
A large part of the anger within punk was about class and the pushback against the differences in wealth and privilege that has existed for hundreds of years in the UK. Her one time boyfriend, Gary Hume, talked memorably about the need to break through the doors of society and that impulse drove him to originally make work based around found household doors. The irony of course is that in time the work does become taken up by the upper classes, it appears in the cultivated spaces of the London auction houses, in elegant South Kensington drawing rooms, and the artists themselves become wealthy and are absorbed into, and sometimes mimic, the lifestyles of those who collect them. Instead of using found objects or ephemeral materials now, the same pieces are sometimes cast in bronze, as unbreakable as the institutions these YBA artists, including Sarah Lucas, once kicked back against so furiously.