‘Pervery and pleasure in a sea of custard’ is how one critic described Sarah Lucas’s 2015 Venice Biennale exhibition. Possibly an exaggeration, but not necessarily inaccurate, Lucas particularly considers themes of sex, gender, and the body. The ‘sea of custard’ points to her critical humor and edible mediums embedded in sculptures, photographs, and installations.
Lucas and the YBAs
Lucas, one of the infamous Young British Artists (YBA), established herself through exhibitions with her fellow YBAs. She was part of the iconic 1988 group Freeze exhibition, organized by Damien Hirst, which included Michael Landy, Angus Fairhurst, and fellow contemporary artists from Goldsmiths College of Art. During the rise of the YBAs, Lucas and Tracey Emin were both exploring the ‘ready-made’ and set up The Shop, a studio-come-shop that became a place where they could best market their works.
Since the 1990s, Lucas has continued creating witty contemplations of sexuality and gender and is now celebrated for her feminist art. In the wake of Linda Nochlin’s crucial essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, Lucas was one of the earliest young, women artists to achieve greatness in the commercial art world of the 1980s.
Lucas’s bawdiness and witty remarks exemplify the YBAs’ mentality of shock-value and a rejection of the artistic canon. Her provocative photographs, created during the heyday of the YBAs, embody her humorous, yet direct, style.
Hostility and humor
In Self Portrait with Knickers (1994), Lucas is the main subject and confronts the viewer directly, possessing a confrontational, possibly hostile, yet typically masculine pose, to challenge them. Lucas adapts the classical woman subject, such as The Rokeby Venus (1647) who knowingly shies away from observers, and subverts the viewer’s expectation by being both the artist and the subject.
Furthermore, the addition of knickers in the background adds bawdy humor to the image. Lucas has the ability to convey feminine sexuality being explored in a light-hearted way, free from the pressurizing forces of a male artist.
The ‘male gaze’, a term first coined by Laura Mulvey to conceptualize the media’s representation of women in film, relates to the idea of how women are viewed typically, in all aspects of their lives, through a masculinized gaze and male-orchestrated expectations. The ‘male gaze’ can also refer to the representation of women as solely sexualized objects.
Lucas references the concept of the ‘male gaze’ through the medium of photography. As the photographer, Lucas initiates the act of viewing the subject, but the relationship becomes more complex as she is also the subject and returning the viewer’s gaze. Thus, she is both the viewer and the viewed.
Also, her artworks often incorporate the theme of smoking, which is usually a sign of phallic masculinity. Lucas’s Cigarette Tits [Idealized Smokers Chest II] (1999) embodies her use of suggestive humor in feminist contexts. By using cigarettes to mimic the female form and feminine sexuality instead of male anatomy, Lucas provokes the viewer to reconsider how women are presented and represented, not solely in art but also in the mainstream media. She presents inanimate objects in a sexualized fashion, adopting the ‘male gaze’. Lucas shifts the ideals of the ‘male gaze’ from the female body on to inanimate objects, calling attention to its prevalence and extremity, while also subverting it with humor.
Subversion of the inanimate
Lucas, like many feminist artists, utilizes the feminine body to empower and provoke thought. Her sculptures in particular make use of food items, which she adheres to human forms and sculpts in ways to consider how different genders are presented. They evoke contemplation of stereotypes and the sexualization of female bodies. These common food items also relay fundamental ideas of consumption, exchange, and bare necessities.
In Au Naturel (1994), Lucas utilizes produce displayed in a phallic manner to render the body as mere reproductive parts. She asks questions of human necessity by the body’s bare representation and the use of food objects relating to consumption, while the bed has both sexual connotations and relates to rest. Lucas reduces the body to its main functions, yet still includes the division of male and female genders, which presents conflict. Is Lucas associating gender with the human necessities she also presents? Or, given the fact she has moulded produce in recognizably gendered ways, does she give more emphasis to the idea that gender is a societal construct? However, Au Naturel presents sexual politics in an originally light manner of innuendoes and simple composition, but Lucas raises questions about highly complex ideas of human bodies being used as a source of exchange and solely sexualized objects, particularly aligning to the mainstream media today.
Lucas’s use of food can be seen as a reference to Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Party (1979). In The Dinner Party, the ceramic plates mimic female genitalia, which shocked audiences and caused controversy when it was first exhibited. Chicago’s transmutation of the typical, womanly, and domestic dinner party into a powerful statement on feminine sexuality can be directly related to Lucas’s subversion of inanimate objects to consider sexual politics through a ‘male gaze’.
It is clear that Lucas’s art may not have arrived into the feminist art canon as a completely new idea, given the precedent of subversion to explore female sexuality in both literature and art. However, due to her bawdy attitude, she presents an enjoyable and witty commentary, dismantling some of the pressures and traditional ideas of female sexuality that have been perpetuated throughout much of art history.
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Written by Caitlin Sahin, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.
I am currently in my first year at the Courtauld Institute of Art, studying History of Art. I am most interested in Modernism to Contemporary Art and particularly like abstract art. At the moment, I am attempting to learn more about performance and sculptural art.