Sarah Lucas: Project 1. National Gallery of Australia, Closes February 13, 2022. Daily 10am-5pm, free admission.
Witty, irreverent, provocative and, to some, confronting and deeply offensive, the art of English artist Sarah Lucas is presented with a baroque exuberance in gallery 1 in conjunction with the Know my name exhibition.
For 30 years Lucas has been the 'femme terrible' of the British art scene. Between 1984 and 1987 she studied at Goldsmith College where she met many fellow artists, including Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Gillian Wearing and Gary Hume, who would form the Young British Artists (YBA) group that started to exhibit in 1988. Inspired by the writings of the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin and her arguments on patriarchy and analysis of pornography, Lucas in her art began to question, with wit and assertiveness, assumed structures in society and the art world.
Spurred on by the entrepreneurial genius of Damien Hirst, YBA artists brought a sense of excitement to the contemporary British art scene. Lucas also for about six months ran a temporary shop with Tracey Emin, where they sold decorated keyrings, wire penises, hand-painted T-shirts and decorated funky ashtrays. Apparently the friendship with Emin was short-lived and Lucas, drawing on tabloid newspapers, magazines, street culture and observed structures within the arts community, created her body of work that drew attention to sexist and misogynist assumptions that were held as social norms that she would expose with humour.
Lucas's sprawling collage/sculpture, Penis Nailed to a Board (1991), the title drawn from a tabloid report about boys behaving badly, also provided the title to her first solo exhibition that launched her career and gave her notoriety and a standing as a serious artist in the art world. She is an artist for whom humour and bricolage are important elements in her art and she developed a practice that goes across sculpture, photography and installation. Frequently in her sculptural creations she combines domestic materials, including old furniture, stockings, underwear, cigarettes, cinder blocks and food, such as raw chickens, vegetables and kebabs, many doing double service in portraying erotic body parts, especially genitalia.
Recognition came early with Lucas's inclusion in the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, a retrospective exhibition of her art followed at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in East London in 2013, and in 2015 she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. Today she is widely regarded as one of the more important feminist artists of her generation working in Britain.
The exhibition at the NGA brings together early self-portrait photographs of Lucas, plus some of her recent sculptures. It is an impressive, theatrically presented exhibition, quite different from the slightly 'grunge' look of some of her earlier shows that I have encountered in Europe. The self-portrait photographs, made in 1990 and which she rediscovered in about 2017, are of the artist eating a banana. In the Canberra exhibition, the photographs have been blown up to about seven metres and are displayed as continuous wallpaper in a gallery with the exceptionally high ceilings creating a dramatic setting that invariably shrinks the scale of sculptures that were conceived as life-size into miniatures. This is similar to the strategy adopted for her Red Brick Art Museum show in Beijing in 2019-20.
The huge black-and-white photographic images of the 28-year-old Lucas dressed in leathers and with unisex cropped hair seductively consuming a banana (with all of its sexual connotations) converts the gallery space into a contested arena where the erotic sculptures strut their stuff under the artist's gaze. The photographs appear to cater to the male desire through the sexual euphemisms, however the scale dwarfs the potential for this to be read as a submissive image. Big sister is watching.
The Bunnies sculptures, with all of their connotations of Playboy bunnies, Lucas first made in 1997 as eight mannequins out of variously coloured nylon tights that had been stuffed with wool and sat atop and around a snooker table in the installation Bunny Gets Snookered. The stuffed nylon pantyhose became splayed limbs of women's bodies - intimate, glamorous and erotic while at the same time disposable and abject. Drawing on conventions of Dada and Surrealism - Hans Bellmer's uncanny fetishistic dolls, the soft sculptures of Dorothea Tanning and Louise Bourgeois's fabric sculptures - Lucas's tubular elongated female limbs adopted erotic poses.
The bunnies moved onto chairs of various descriptions and adopted stiletto heels, coloured socks, fashionista shoes and other fashion accessories, and as the series developed they moved out of the snooker salon up to the fashion catwalk and business executive lounges. Lucas adopts existing gender stereotypes that are illustrated by the bunnies, subjects of masculine conquests, but non-responsive slumped, sagging forms and literally empty heads seem to turn these traditional objects of desire back on to themselves and they appear as hollow and ridiculous. Lucas, as in much of her art, sets up a mirror for sexism, rather than presenting a critique or an agenda for change. As she pointed out in an interview, "I'm not trying to solve the problem. I'm exploring the moral dilemma by incorporating it".
In this exhibition, apart from the soft sculpture bunnies, there is a new breed of figures cast in bronze (based on the stuffed nylon forms) where on a heightened level the lines between the humorous and the abject are blurred. Some of these new bunnies, still shown in laid-back seductive poses, are no longer simply female and in pieces including Elf Warrior (2018) and Dick'Ead (2018) they have thrusting, vertically positioned male members. In the book Sarah Lucas: After 2005, before 2012 she listed her attraction for making penises, "... appropriation, because I don't have one; voodoo; economics; totemism; they're a convenient size for the lap; fetishism; compact power; Dad; why make the whole bloke?; gents; gnomey; because you don't see them on display much; for religious reasons having to do with the spark."
In another bronze sculpture, where gender is strangely morphed into ambiguous forms, Tittipussidad (2018), that has been acquired by the NGA, the struggle between attraction and rejection is palpable where the forms simultaneously seduce and repulse, but you are left with an image that will continue to haunt your imagination for a long time to come.
Lucas, in recent interviews, appears a little depressed on where feminism and the world is presently heading. She observed, "Things seem on a very conservative trend now, fascistic even. I was watching Nancy Pelosi speaking after the storming of the Capitol by right-wing fanatics. She was making a very serious speech about the threat to democracy, looking very pale and shaken, and I noticed that she had on very precarious stiletto heels beneath her trouser suit. This seems to be a necessary get-up for women to be taken seriously in public life. They're allowed to talk tough and wear power suits but are inevitably tottering around in implausible heels. What does that tell us? Is it an ugly and hateful thing for women to look anything other than 'feminine'?"
Perhaps her sculptures are more crucial today than ever before to expose and reverse this trend.