Sarah Lucas Retrospective: Happy Ga(l)s

Sarah Lucas Retrospective: Happy Ga(l)s
Sarah Lucas is internationally celebrated for her bold and provocative use of materials and imagery. Her current collaboration with Tate Britain, Happy Gas, explores gender, race and class – sponsored by Burberry.


Frying Feminist Eggs

Sarah Lucas (1962) is part of the generation of Young British Artists who emerged in 1988. Coming to national attention as part of the shock and awe Blitzkrieg of the YBAs, instead of focusing on death, love or murder (like her contemporaries Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marcus Harvey), she pursued the nitty, gritty, grimy sludge of everyday existence; in sex, excrement, masturbation, cigarettes, filth, the body and putridity. The hows and whys of the things we hide or say under our breath.

Her works frequently employ visual puns and bawdy humour by incorporating photography, sculpture, collage and found objects. She often questions the conviction of convention by highlighting the absurdity of the absolute. One of her most famous works Two Fried Eggs and Kebab, parodies the traditional still life and evokes similarities between itself and feminist Judy Chicago‘s infamous piece The Dinner Party. Feminist reviews often describe Lucas as attempting to add female artists into the canon of art history through her analytical work that predominantly discusses the female body and voyeurism.

Her pieces represent a fantastical world and playfully employ unrealistic ideals to unearth the obscene paradoxes created by those very constructions. Specifically, she is concerned with the casual misogyny of everyday life and employs the conventions of middle class or ‘street’ language to enact her concepts. Her appropriation of masculine symbols such as the phallic banana or ‘fried eggs’ in conjunction with her fearless and dominating gaze, takes ‘female work’ out of the feminine sphere and disrupts the patriarchal power dynamic of the gaze. She has stated that, “I am not trying to solve the problem. I’m exploring the moral dilemma by incorporating it.”

Her works are both literal and conceptual evidence of Lucas searching for meaning. Whether it is through recognisable forms or her own mythologised fantasies, her ideas constantly build and transform. To her, the artworks she makes “carry on talking and thinking with other people”; Her practices are not just compulsive ramblings or automatic depictions, but a conscious yearning for a personal sense of fulfilment and happiness.

Lucas was born to a milkman father and a part-time gardener and cleaner mother, who she says had “absolutely no ambition”. She grew up in an estate in Holloway, north London, though she frequently accompanied her parents to other homes to “ogle the furniture.” She became pregnant at 17 after leaving school at 16 and had an abortion, then deciding to hitchhike around Europe in search of direction in life. Today she lives with her partner Julian Simmons, in the former residence of Benjamin Britten near Aldeburgh, Suffolk.


A Breath Of Fresh Gas

Lucas’ latest exhibition, Happy Gas, is devoted to sex, smoking, death, swear words, sexist and homophobic insults, toilets and excreta. An installation of new and old works taking you from 1991 to the present, it is in no way a conventional retrospective, which usually tracks an artist’s development from tyro trials and tribulations to greatest hits in dutiful stages. For an artist who was characterised as a “slacker” since first emerging, she has been prolific, and has designed the entire show from the seating to the plinths.

There are gigantic resin sandwiches, big as king-sized beds and with dubious spam-like fillings, intimations of a smoker’s death, naked body-casts of friends in various abject poses, raw chicken underwear and photos of the artist on the lavvy. Amid all this, it is the ordinary and everyday that’s highlighted to be perverse. Yet the tragi-comic cartoonery defends a steadfast spirit – it seems her repertoire of pervy one-liners and toilet humour hasn’t changed much now that the sculptor is 60.

A staple for fans of Rude Britannia, sprawled tights, toes knotted into sagging nipples, or crammed into heels, are splayed, heaped and tangled across numerous chairs, and the sculptures of fluorescent tubes probing away at poor battered sofas hold their devastating significance. The gigantic ham sandwich is a sardonic take on men’s prurient gags, a burnt-out car and charred ashtray stand for a cancerous lung – and the devil is quite literally in the details. Going big is going home, swapping superficial sophistication and grandeur for the reality of the vulgar, puerile, obscene, grotesque and childish.

Lucas was slower than Hirst and others in finding her language, but once she had, she immediately established herself as an unflinching social commentator. One of the earliest sculptures here is The Old Couple (1992), two dusty wooden dining chairs, one with a dildo on its seat, the other with a pair of false teeth. It reflects Lucas’ brilliant knack for finding a colloquial British language for the feminist thought she was absorbing, in this case the writer Andrea Dworkin’s reflections on the vulnerability of a penis within a vagina.

Dworkin also informed the works that Lucas said were “the beginning of me as we know me”: the blown-up misogynistic Sunday Sport spreads, presented with brutal directness. Turned towards them in the show are two chairs with masturbating arms, one of them hydraulically moving. Much is made of Lucas’ bawdiness, but few artists do disdain better than her. Part of the power of her work is its capacity to hold multiple meanings. There is a surreality, uncanniness and psychological intensity to that famous cackling Britishness that aligns Lucas squarely with a European absurdist tradition.

Lucas’ self-portraits play a key role in the narrative: it’s as if different incarnations of her are accompanying both her work and us, as we observe and participate in it. In the most complex room of this perplexing meditation on the uncomplex, there is a reflection on Lucas’ move to rural Suffolk (where concrete marrows installed inside and outside Tate Britain reflect the town-to-country evolution of her knob gags), neatly framed in two framed portraits. In one, a young Lucas looks at us from a chair outside a London bric-a-brac shop; in the other, she sits contentedly amid a field of hay.

Sarah successfully marries herself, officiating the old and new while absolutely harnessing her particular spirit; reflecting aspects of a life’s work to date, but avoiding a common pitfall of retrospectives: seeming like an ominous full stop. She leaves you with an abiding feeling of an artist at the height of her powers, loving making art, her ability to provoke us, amuse us, surprise us, and still high on life.