Sarah Lucas has a limitless talent for making ordinary life sensational. By recontextualizing everyday items — food, furniture, the people closest to her — she is able to imbue these things with new, often sexual, meanings and forge new relationships between them. With an unrepentant humor, she pieces together a unique commentary on human society that is made even more profound by the simplicity and ubiquity of the materials with which she does it. “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel” is a sprawling retrospective of the British artist’s work, on view at the New Museum in New York.
Famed art collector Charles Saatchi attended “Freeze” in 1988 and soon after began acquiring many Young British Artists’ works. In 1997, in collaboration with the London Royal Academy of Arts, Saatchi put together “Sensation,” an exhibition of his personal collection of Young British Artists’ works. The show included works by Sarah Lucas, in addition to pieces by Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae, Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin and others. After drawing controversy and roughly 300,000 visitors, the show traveled to Berlin and then onto New York where it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” drew the personal ire of New York’s then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. Needless to say, the show drew a record number of visitors in New York, too.
Included in “Sensation” was the Sarah Lucas piece entitled Au Naturel (1994), which is the piece from which her current show at the New Museum takes its title. Consisting of two melons, two oranges, a cucumber and a fire water bucket suggestively situated in a bent, old mattress, Au Naturel is an apt introduction to Lucas’s work.
Au Naturel currently shares a room with two similarly conceived works entitled The Old Couple (1991) and Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992), which, as their label notes, were originally shown in a London storefront in 1992 as the only pieces of an exhibition entitled “The Whole Joke.” The Old Couple makes use of two worn wooden chairs. At the center of one, Lucas has adhered a phallus made of wax. At the center of the other, she has attached a set of open dentures — teeth up. The chairs are boldly endowed with human sexual traits and can obviously no longer be used simply for sitting, while they nevertheless remain signifiers of mundane, daily life.
Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab consists of a long wooden table on top of which are placed two fried eggs and a kebab — both cooked daily — and a photograph of the meal. Making use of British slang, Lucas uses the fresh and common food items to denote female sexual organs extensively on display and objectified live and on film.
“Egg Massage” (2015) can be viewed, perhaps, as a reinterpretation of Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab. It is a short video set at the home of gallery owner Sadie Coles and photographer Juergen Teller, which was filmed the evening of New Year’s 2015. In it, Lucas, a smile on her lips and a knife in one hand, cracks and lathers numerous eggs all over the body of her husband and fellow artist, Julian Simmons, who lies naked atop a table surrounded by lit candles and fruit. Three women — Sadie Coles, Pauline Daly, Yoko Brown — and a small dog look on from nearby chairs as the ritual unfolds. Teller photographs close-ups of Simmons as his body receives its yellow anointing. The script is flipped and everyone, including Simmons, appears to be rather enjoying it.
That same year, Lucas enlisted Sadie Coles and Yoko Brown, along with a few other women in her life, to help her create Muses (2015) for her exhibition “I SCREAM DADDIO” at the 2015 Venice Biennale. For the piece, she made plaster casts of the bottom halves of eight women, including a cast of her own legs. These casts, set in various positions, she then provocatively paired with common furniture and appliances. Three of the muses — Yoko, Pauline and Michele — moved on in an exhibition entitled “POWER IN WOMAN” to the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. There they were displayed within the mustard yellow walls that had partially inspired the wall paint that Lucas herself used for “I SCREAM DADDIO.”
Muses (2015) is now on view in a freshly yellow painted room at the New Museum. Yoko is seated rather demurely at the edge of a chair, while Pauline straddles another. Sadie straddles a toilet, while Edith kneels before one, her upper half plausibly sunk into it. Lucas herself is paired with a bar stool. A cigarette is stuck in the most convenient orifice of each muse. The overall effect is quite humorous as these women-turned-objects seemed to have uncontrollably run off course from the classical, male-driven sculptural traditions that inspired them.
Lucas further enlisted Sadie Coles to help her select the 2003 Jaguar that would become the subject of “This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven” (2018), one of two pieces specifically created for the New Museum exhibition. Lucas has been working with wrecked cars since the 1990s. Due to the size of the New Museum’s elevator, “This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven” was necessarily severed in half. Lucas torched the back and adhered Marlboro Red cigarettes to the front, as well as to the car’s disembodied two front seats. The piece alone is a sight to behold. However, installed at the base of “Divine” (1991/2018) and headed toward “Christ You know It Ain’t Easy” (2003), it becomes the focal point of an awesome upheaval.
“Divine” is a wall-sized portrait of Lucas herself, seated outside atop a set of white steps against a backdrop of blue sky. Clothed in a jacket, T-shirt and Jeans, she leans back on her elbows as she spreads her legs. The Jaguar’s severing aligns with Lucas’s crotch and almost appears to have been the work of her own massive boots. On the right adjacent wall, “Christ You know It Ain’t Easy” recreates the crucifixion. Jesus, made out of cigarettes, is hung at the center of a large painted black cross, which here appears to morph into a set of life-altering crossroads. Situated by the back of the car are Eros (2013), Priapus (2013) — pieces that both combine large plaster phalluses with a crushed car— and “Chicken Knickers” (1997/2014), a wall-sized portrait of white underwear worn with a whole uncooked chicken attached at the front.
Sarah Lucas fearlessly cuts through the bullshit, paring the world around her down to its essentials in order to reveal society’s stark realities. With Duchampian-inspired wit— an inspiration most visually apparent in her repeated use of toilets — Lucas picks apart gender as it plays out in the larger world, in the art world and in our daily lives. Her continued focus on human sexual organs keeps her work in the realm of sensational, all the while reminding us just how ordinary these things are that we ogle and argue about and define each other by.
Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel
Sept 26, 2018 – January 20, 2019
New York, NY 10002