Sarah Lucas, in The Encyclopaedic Palace, Central Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
I’m a firm believer in the idea that art can come from anywhere and be made of anything. And that means that just as an artist can turn everyday materials into art, so they can also choose to materials that have been the stuff of high art for centuries. But, to state the obvious, there’s a bit of a difference between nylon tights stuffed with kapok and bronze. Sarah Lucas has been working with tights for nearly two decades now. Her Bunny sculptures of the late 1990s and the more recent Nuds – often oddly sexual abstract forms – can be both funny and a bit disturbing. Either way, I like them a lot.
Sarah Lucas, SITUATION: Absolute Beach Man Rubble, Whitechapel Gallery, 2013
When it comes to exhibitions I’m usually all in favour of white space and plenty of it. I want to see the work and I want the installation of the work to be as unobtrusive as possible. If I’m spending time looking at the plinths or the frames or the way things are positioned then that’s less time spent looking at the art. Sometimes though the way the work is shown can become part of the show in a good way. Thinking back, there have been a few shows at the Whitechapel Gallery recently where that’s been the case (indeed, I wrote about two – the Gillian Wearing and Gerard Byrne exhibitions – a while ago for MostlyFilm) so I guess it should have come as no surprise that the Sarah Lucas show there late last year – which I caught just before it closed – was, let’s say, not the most minimal of installations.
I guess the leap from thinking about a woman artist making a sculpture of a cock to Sarah Lucas’s work is a distinctly literal one, but as I saw Lucas’s exhibition at the Whitechapel shortly before it ended last month, her work’s been on my mind.
There is of course a long history of toilets in the gallery space but it’s a form few have used with such determined consistency as Sarah Lucas. And while Duchamp’s Fountain – like the works that reference it very directly, such as Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (Buddha) – seems somehow more about the form than the function of the artefact and Claes Oldenberg’s Soft Toilet can be enjoyed for the strange disjunction between the form and materials used in the work and the function of the object on which it is based, Lucas’s toilet works are often grubby and unpleasant to look at.
I’ve always rather loved those 1960s’ bubble chairs. They manage to look simultaneously comfy, oddly cool and kind of scary. Okay, maybe I’m just easily alarmed, but I have a suspicion that if I ever managed to get into such a chair I’d only get back out by some sort of falling. Getting in or out would at very least result in a degree of ungainliness, I’m sure of that. The comfy part is all about the way the chair envelops its occupant, of course.
So what could make such a chair both more comfy – maybe, I’m not completely convinced on that one – and more scary? Why coating it, inside and out, with what appear to be breasts made out of old tights, of course.
Having seen quite a bit of work made from existing objects recently and having been reminded about Au Naturel by seeing Tracey Emin’s Dead Sea in her exhibition at Turner Contemporary, which I wrote about here a while ago, I find myself wondering why it’s taken me this long to write about Sarah Lucas’s work.
Essentially, Au Naturel is a very simple sculpture of a man and woman in bed, he represented by two oranges and a cucumber, she by a bucket and a pair of melons. What makes this work for me is that the visual joke of the assemblage triggers thoughts about language and the slang terms used for body parts. In particular, with works like this, Lucas draws attention to the derogatory way women’s bodies are often described colloquially.