British Sculptor, Photographer, Installation and Performance Artist
London, United Kingdom
Summary of Sarah Lucas
Joining the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Gary Hume, Lucas came to the public's attention as one of the foremost contributors to the Young British Artists (YBA) movement. The YBAs gained world-wide notoriety in the late 1980s and early 1990s by using shock tactics to court the worlds of commerce and celebrity. Building her art through everyday objects - items of household furniture would often double as the human body for instance - Lucas brought a raw energy to works that offered blunt (many would say, obscene) commentaries on sensitive topics including sexuality, female objectification and death. Lucas topped the career highlight (though she insists that she does not have "a career") of the 1997 Sensation exhibition when she represented the UK at the 2015 Venice Biennale where she exhibited her typically controversial installation I SCREAM DADDIO. Having become disillusioned by the metropolitan art scene, she moved to the more rural surroundings of Suffolk where she works from home and at her own pace; and with, in her words, "her hands rather than her head".
- Carrying a particular grievance against what she saw as the male dominated contemporary art scene, Lucas pushed the limits of her practice to allow women's art to compete in domains from which women artists like herself had traditionally been excluded. As such, she can claim to be a pivotal figure in a late-twentieth-century shift in attitudes towards art produced by women and pointing the way for the next generations of young female artists.
- Lucas often employs visual puns to lay bare what she sees as the absurdity of cultural biases and petty everyday situations. Her work is known for its course humor and its use of metaphor to attack gender tropes and the inane vernacular of the male working classes. In her sculpture Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992), she uses slang terms to define the model's sexual organs: breasts are "fried eggs" and the vagina is a "kebab".
- Having experimented with minimalist sculpture while a student at Goldsmith's College, Lucas turned her attention to more immediate sources of imagery for inspiration, such as the British tabloid press. Inspired by the writings of the feminist Andrea Dworkin, she set about the task of challenging the casual objectification of women and dismantling the myth (as she saw it) of female sexual liberation. In the early self-portraits which helped make her name - such as Eating a Banana (1990) and Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) - we see her attack narrow perspectives on female beauty in everyday visual culture.
- Though she is associated with strident feminist statements, Lucas's starting point is generally her immediate access to materials which can range from furniture, food, concrete blocks, stockings and cigarettes. The found objects must be, however, sculptural and associative. Her sculptures are all headless (defined only by their genitals) and the only live human face to be seen in her work is her own which is omnipresent through a series of photographic self-portraits.
Progression of Art
Eating a Banana
In Eating a Banana (1990) an androgynous looking Lucas is shown in a close shot, eating a banana and looking askance at the camera. The setting of the image appears to be a yard of some kind, lending the image an urban feel. Lucas's attire and confident gaze subvert the sexual connotations (the act of fellatio) of her actions in the image. This was one of a number of photographic self-portraits Lucas produced throughout the 1990s which portray the artist adopting different poses. She is shown, for instance, sitting in an armchair with her legs apart, two fried eggs placed over her breasts; sitting on a toilet; and standing in front of a makeshift washing line of underwear in what seems to be a forest or garden.
By "performing" Eating a Banana, Lucas counterposes the suggestive nature of her actions with the actuality of her defiant gaze and masculine clothing. This self-portrait invites comparisons to Lynda Benglis's infamous Centrefold (1974), in which she posed naked with a large dildo. However, while Benglis still reproduced the expectations of a naked woman in her early image, disrupting it albeit with a phallus, Lucas effectively replaces the phallus, gazing defiantly while fully clothed. Reflecting of her early self-portraits, Lucas said "I suddenly could see the strength of the masculinity about [them] the usefulness of [masculinity] to the subject struck me at that point, and since then I've used that".
Photograph - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab
Functioning as a critique on sexist attitudes, this sculpture features two fried eggs and a kebab placed on a wooden table below a photograph of the same arrangement as if in a photo frame. The eggs, freshly cooked each day, are located alongside each other, and the kebab, with its open pitta bread encasing kebab folds, is placed below. These food items depict the breasts and vagina by representing the well-known pun on words. Equally, the image becomes a reclining female nude, reducing the woman to what might be seen as her "essential" parts.
When Art Historian Anne M. Wagner says that Lucas' main task is "the mining of the semantic possibilities of everyday things", and when Lucas herself says that "everything is language, including objects", and declares, "composition is my work", she is describing her approach to sculpture as an arrangement. Speaking of this work, author Michelle Robecchi admired a "simplicity and formal directness, combined with a subtly perverse humour [that] evoke fetishism and mental associations with an ingenious insight, disquieting even the most innocent viewer". One must acknowledge the humor and act of play in the work, which is so fundamental to Lucas's worldview, and so central to the creative urge itself. Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab demonstrates Lucas's urge to play with the metaphors of street language.
Sculpture - Private Collection
Predating Tracy Emin's more famous (and more personal) My Bed by some three years, Au Naturel (the title of the work is the brand name printed on the mattress label) is a sculpture in which a yellowing, stained mattress sits slumped against a gallery wall. On the upper left hand side two melons have been inserted into cuts made in the mattress. They are placed above a water bucket, that opens outwards towards the viewer. On the right, two oranges and a courgette protrude from the mattress. The symbolism is, like Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, crude and unambiguous. Presented at the controversial Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, however, Au Naturel brought Lucas's fascination with crude sexual metaphors to a whole new global audience, and thereby confirmed her ability to confront (and quite likely offend) her audience through a flagrant play on base connotative associations.
Gilda Williams has described Au Naturel as "a portrait of a naked and amorous couple" (the penis is erect and the vagina is open) that amounts to "a vulgar composition of materials and vernacular language". The "couple" lay apart, very possibly in a state of pre or post-coitus. Academic Amna Malik, meanwhile, picked up on the work's blunt objectivity; there is, she says, "no apparent morality attached - no implication of guilt, shame, or embarrassment". There was, however, a bigger point to be made about Lucas's position within the contemporary art scene at the end of the twentieth century. For Malik the "sardonic and irreverent" nature of this work (and others) presented an afront to "assumptions about what kind of art women artists make". Indeed, Malik contests that Lucas's "shift between high and low art and culture operates as a shift between 'high' aesthetic ideas about the art object as a metaphoric play of meaning and its 'low' associations with the materiality of the literal object and its allusions to the genitals and sex".
Sculpture - Private Collection
Bunny Gets Snookered
Bunny Gets Snookered was an installation for Sadie Cole's London gallery. It comprised a number of Bunny sculptures - including the most famous Pauline Bunny - placed on and around a full size snooker table. The Bunnies were stuffed nylons, with what appear to be aberrant limbs protruding from the head and each clamped to the back of a second-hand chair. The Bunnies all had splayed legs and could only be differentiated by coloured stockings that correspond with the different colours of the snooker balls. There is also three black and white photographic "pin ups" of one of the Bunnies on the wall. Later, individual Bunnies would go on to make them key works in Lucas' canon and point directly towards her legacy to Surrealism, especially Hans Bellmer's dolls and Louise Bourgeois's cloth sculptures. Her Bunnies would ultimately evolve, in fact, into her similarly themed, but more "solid", Nud sculptures.
Art historian Neal Brown has described how the Bunnies were "ranked like sexual conquests, pocketed, in a horrible polygamy, by the malign presence of the overbearingly male snooker table". When playing the game, being "snookered" means that no points can be scored and suggests that the bunnies are contained as objects and unable to progress in the game of life. For her part, Pauline Bunny, the most slender of the Bunnies, wears black stockings that correspond with the highest value ball in snooker. Black stockings are also widely considered the most sexually alluring shade. Gordon Burn describes, "Lucas's fascination with the social spaces that men carve out and aggressively make their own. Snooker halls, nicotined sheds, changing rooms, truckers' cabins, public bars and dodgy urinals keep on turning up in her work; territories from which women tend to be excluded except as the objects of casual put-downs, dirty jokes, or as pin-ups on the salted-peanut card hanging next to the pork scratchings behind the bar".
Sadie Coles HQ, London
Part of a series of Nud sculptures - in an interview with Aida Edemariam, Lucas explained that "the word Nud [came] from a phrase of her mother's, 'in the nuddy', meaning naked" - Nud 2 is made of fluff stuffed into tights stiffened and shaped with wire. The visual effect is of limbs endlessly entwined. The limbs are not smooth but mottled, while the texture and color of the flesh is pallid and stony.
It is thought that Lucas first used tights in her art in 1992 when she stuffed them with newspaper while running The Shop with Tracy Emin. But the first of the Nud series came about, as Christine Patterson describes it, when her partner, the artist Julian Simmonds, presented her with a pair of old tights he had found in the garden shed: "Once she'd stuffed them with kapok and twisted them into shape [Lucas] had a 'eureka moment'". With this work the use of tights, whose everyday function is to regulate or conceal skin, becomes the skin itself. The contrast between the twisted limbs and the dark grey breeze blocks that they rest on, both situates these forms in the real-world as well isolating them to be displayed as artworks. Once again inviting sexual connotations, Nuds failed to shy away from bodily imperfections, and in so doing, she presented an afront to the airbrushed images that are presented through the popular media.
Displayed on a plinth of dark gray breeze-blocks, Nud 2 sits very close to the ground meaning that the viewer looks down on the artwork, but other Nud sculptures are presented at eye level (also on gray breeze blocks). Lucas has also produced the Nud Cycladic, a series that are more muscular and longer limbed than this example. The term "Cycladic" refers in fact to Bronze Age and early Neolithic carved marble sculptures that consisted of flattened figures that sometimes had arms wrapped around their bodies. Taken as a whole, then, the Nud series both mimics and alters the display conventions of classical sculpture.
I Scream Daddio was Lucas's British Pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennial in 2015. It took the form of a display of different sculptural works set against a yellow painted pavilion split across multiple rooms. The bold Maradona works, one Deep Cream the other Gold Cup, were located one in front of the entrance of the pavilion and the other in an interior room. Turning the tradition of the reclining female nude on its head, the sculptures are cartoonish balloon-like displays of splayed limbs with a 14 foot erect penis in bright yellow hues made of resin. Blending with the yellow walls, Lucas wanted to create an upbeat piece of work; one that seems almost to celebrate the sensuality of human bodies. In an article by Adrian Searle of The Guardian, Lucas suggested that "The sculptures are set in a sea of custard, Crème Anglais in other words" and she chose that color because she wanted to "put us all in a good mood". Searle added that the sculptures and their surroundings had reminded Lucas "of meringues in a dessert, with [the famous British chef] Fergus Henderson providing a recipe for iles flottantes [in which a meringue floats of a yellow sauce base]".
Lucas's characteristic word play returns with Maradona which could be a pun on the name of the famous Argentinian footballer and the idea of a male Madonna. Of this Lucas says, "I love mixing up the sexes. I love that you can never get to the bottom of it. Having a penis is such a categoric thing, and we can live under its tyranny, but I enjoy the ambiguity". But when looking at her exhibition as a whole, Lucas was clearly not prioritizing the male form. The Pavilion also included crude casts of the lower half of nine of Lucas's female friends (her "muses") as well as the artist herself. The inspiration for these works was an earlier cast of Lucas's own body with a cigarette poking out of her vagina that had been destroyed in a studio fire in 2004. Here, each plaster cast, placed on furniture in different provocative poses, has a cigarette inserted into the navel, anus, or vagina.
Lucas has always maintained that being an artist should not be considered a career choice but something more spontaneous; something more "amateur" (in her words). Indeed, her somewhat insouciant attitude towards her art was nicely summed up in the following comment made directly in relation to the female Pavilion sculptures: "No one's told me off about the fannies [vaginas]. You don't tend to see 'em much, do you, outside of pornography".
56th Venice Biennial, British Pavilion I Scream Daddio exhibition.
Biography of Sarah Lucas
The third of four siblings (two brothers and a sister), Lucas was born in 1962. Her father was a milkman and her mother was a cleaner and part-time gardener. The Lucas family lived on a council estate near the Holloway Road in North London. At the suggestion that she was an unhappy child, Lucas recalled: "I was very reserved when I was a little kid, I didn't even speak till I was three. So I'd find a corner somewhere and just make things, to keep myself company".
Lucas was a self-proclaimed tomboy, playing out on the street with local children (mostly boys), learning to swear without really understanding what the swearwords meant. She has spoken since of the political implications of swearing and how "whole classes of people had language stacked against them". Speaking of her formative years, art critic Gilda Williams has spoken of how Lucas's work "seems forever suspended in [...] the brief instance hinged between childhood and adolescence [...] arrested in the short space of puberty, in that giggly, boy crazy (or girl-crazy) period when almost any object [...] trigger squeals of embarrassed giggling".
Lucas has said that her mother wouldn't allow her to do any homework on the thinking that the time she spent at school should be enough of an education. She left school at 16 with no qualifications, stating that she "bummed around for a couple of years" and survived on part time jobs and unemployment benefit. Reacting to an abortion at 17, Lucas hitchhiked around Europe for a year with a boyfriend while trying to work out what she would like to do with her life. On her return, her mother got her a job in a play centre where she was working. Once there, she spoke with a colleague who had gone to art college and she realised that this was path she might follow.
Early Training and Work
Having attended the Working Men's College in 1982, Lucas put together a portfolio which secured her a place on a foundation course at the London College of Printing in 1983. As a fine Art undergraduate, she studied at Goldsmith College between 1984 and 1987 where she met many fellow artists who would form the Young British Artists (YBA) movement, including Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Gillian Wearing and Gary Hume. She entered into personal relationships with Hume and Fairhurst, the latter ending in a tragedy that would affect Lucas's outlook on life. Following her graduation, she contributed to Hirst's famous Freeze exhibition in a London Port Authority Building in Docklands. Many of the artists showing at Freeze became associated with the YBAs whose work was promoted by advertising guru and art collector Charles Saatchi. The journalist Lynn Barber observed that "at college, the boys all treated [Lucas] as an equal and respected her work. But after college, she noticed, the boys were all quickly wooed by galleries and fêted by collectors, while she was only invited to things as Gary Hume's plus one". Lucas has spoken frequently of her anger about that situation.
In 1990 Lucas met art director Sadie Coles, who was at that time working for the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, and would later represent Lucas through her own commercial gallery in London. At this time Lucas became strongly influenced by the writing of Dworkin and her radical feminist position on patriarchy: attacking the dominance of "blokey" art that she believed was "actually a construct". Her sculpture Penis Nailed to a Board soon followed and her first solo exhibition at City Racing Gallery brought her recognition in her own right. In fact Lucas describes how success came after she returned to making things as she did, "when I was little, just making things, because I always did, to keep myself company. I think that sort of continues - the making things to keep yourself company".
In 1993, and inspired by Vivian Westwood and Michael McLaren's 1970s shop Let it Rock, Lucas and fellow YBA Tracy Emin set up a temporary shop (called "The Shop") at 103 Bethnal Green Road, London. Though their friendship proved to be rather short lived, Lucas and Emin called themselves "The Birds" and promoted their shop by handing out business cards at parties. The pair sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts hand-painted with slogans such as "Love Come" and "Fucking Useless" and ashtrays with Damien Hirst's face pasted to them. Critic Matthew Collings noted that "It was a certain kind of titillation the shop offered, sexual but also hopeless, destructive, foolish, funny, sad". When, after just six months, the shop went out of business, the pair went their separate ways and Lucas returned to making photography and sculpture.
Lucas's first solo commercial exhibition with Sadie Coles, Bunny Gets Snookered in 1997, was a great success and paved the way for her works Sod you Gits (1991), Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992) and Pauline Bunny (1997) to be included in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy later in 1997. Journalist Lynn Barber has said that, much of Lucas' early work, "seemed - not scary, exactly, because it was too witty for that - but fuelled by anger; anger against pornography and men's casual denigration of women though Lucas responded to that suggestion by saying she was more "annoyed than angry". Nevertheless, Lucas became known for partying hard at places like the Groucho Club, and Colony Rooms in Soho, London, and for her "unabashedly all-balls-out, rock 'n' roll" attitude. Lucas herself confessed to being an aggressive drunk: "I had such an axe to grind and I was annoyed. I was furious with all these blokes with their one-line ideas getting successful around me". However, speaking later of her association with the YBAs, Lucas said, "At the time, you were struggling in such an awful, egocentric way that you couldn't appreciate how amazing it was. I think most of us, all of us, now think, 'Fuck, that was incredible'".
By 1998 - by which time her works were selling for six figure sums at auction - Lucas decided to start working one day a week at the Colony Rooms, a famous bar (frequented previously by the likes of Francis Bacon) in London's Soho (a district once thought of the "home of British bohemia"). Of this she said, "for years and years I did work in bars, and it didn't make me feel in a lowly position. It gave me quite a strong sense of myself, in fact. I've never believed in those notions that dignity lives in status or in how much money you've got. It's good to remind yourself".
Lucas doesn't have an assistant, has never had a studio, and prefers to work from home with available materials. Having achieved a level of financial security, her status has allowed her to work intermittently and at her own pace rather than under the pressure of deadlines. In a recent work, Lucas cast her partner Julien Simmons's penis repeatedly for an artwork called Penetralia, describing the process as "playing around" and her "hands doing it [the art] more than [her] head".
In an attempt to avoid the chaos of the metropolitan art scene, Lucas moved to Suffolk and stopped reading art magazines and newspapers. Her "retreat" allowed her to maintain connections with friends, fellow artists and to focus on her work. She currently lives with Simmons (in a converted cottage previously owned by Benjamin Britten), continuing a pattern of dating fellow artists. Her ex-boyfriend, collaborator, and fellow Goldsmiths graduate Angus Fairhurst, tragically committed suicide in 2008 and she has spoken of having to live with the grief of that tragedy and also her own struggles with depression. In an interview with writer Aida Edemariam, she put Fairhurst's death down to the sudden explosion of the YBA generation and the pressures of fame and fortune that followed: "I do have doubts", she said, "and when I'm putting a show together, and the day goes badly, I'm thinking this is how he must have felt".
The Legacy of Sarah Lucas
Even though many in the art world would regard the rise of the YBAs with mixed blessings - reprioritizing contemporary art as commerce, through artworks that more often than not functioned as in jokes and one-liners did not meet with universal approval - the commercial fortunes of Lucas and her peers caused seismic industry-wide waves that have yet to be repeated. Writer and Journalist Charlotte Higgins described how "The YBAs brought great change to the British art world. Tate Modern, Frieze art fair, the mushrooming of contemporary art galleries around the country, the massive expansion of the UK art market - all [of which] were unthinkable when Lucas, Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk et al graduated in the late 1980s".
Journalist Christina Patterson has added that, unlike many of the YBAs, Lucas "probably has had the most enduring influence of her 'Freeze' and YBA generation, moving beyond those associations to develop an ambitious and enduring contemporary sculptural practice". Damien Hirst, who has bought all of Lucas's early pieces from Charles Saatchi, and is probably her biggest collector, described Lucas as "the greatest artist I know [and] out there stripped to the mast like Turner in the storm, making excellent pieces over and over again". Indeed, while many of her YBA colleagues have suffered a downturn in their artistic fortunes, Lucas seems to have gone from strength-to-strength following her acclaimed solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2013 and her triumphant pavilion showing at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Journalist Deborah Orr summed up her current output thus: "it is easy to see that Sarah's work has the very qualities that people crave currently, post [financial] crash, the most simple authenticity [and] sheer talent for expression".