At East London’s Whitechapel Gallery, a cornucopia of bawdy bricolage confronts you. This is the first major London retrospective of Sarah Lucas. The exhibition, arranged across three galleries, combines the artist’s sculpture, photography, and collage in a boisterous collection of work spanning two decades.
Lucas, of Young British Artist fame, graduated from Goldsmith’s College in 1987 and participated in Damien Hirst’s renowned “Freeze” exhibition with many of the other YBAs. In 1993 she set up a shop in Bethnal Green with Tracey Emin and filled it with their controversial artwork. “SITUATION: Absolute Beach Man Rubble” at the Whitechapel Gallery, investigates her role in the colourful history of British art.
Lucas’ work is based heavily around the reinterpretation of the commonplace, the unremarkable and the inanimate object into an item of innuendo, a reference to the human body or a comment on our warped views of human sexuality. Her feminist bent can be seen in every item, a deep anger at misogynistic culture and examination of gender stereotypes. Throughout her work, Lucas references movements from art history: Pop-Art, Dadaism, and Cubism. She is investigating art’s position within society.
The exhibition is a curatorial sensation. In keeping with Lucas’ dramatic and obscene creations, it is an attack on the senses. Items are suspended like mobiles from the ceiling, propped up against walls and scattered across the floor for visitors to weave between. They are moving, dangling and hanging. The show itself is an installation. Visitors can sit on the breeze-block furniture and become a part of the display. It’s an interactive, visceral experience.
It’s not a pleasant experience. Lucas’ vile items of detritus are stomach-churningly powerful and the lighting is fluorescent and harsh – nothing can be avoided. Splattered food and putrid lavatory bowls sit amongst aggressive deconstructions of genetalia: an enormous, dominating phallus; the lifeless, headless female body formed from the clichéd fried eggs and kebab splattered against old mattresses (Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992, Spinster, 2000); and women’s tights, stuffed and placed spread eagled on chairs. The hind legs of a pig are sat, leaking over a mattress and sporting a pair of white women’s knickers. Each item is more monstrous than the next. It’s a powerful and dramatic display.
In the second room, the walls are plastered with the naked, perspiring crotch of Lucas’ ex-boyfriend, posing with biscuits and tins of beer. Lucas’ face is omnipresent throughout the exhibition – she dangles from mobiles, puffs on cigarettes, and poses in a selection of blown-up Jeurgen Teller portraits.
There’s a black humor to every item in the early rooms, but the final space is a collection of the artist’s more recent, mature work. It’s an entirely different and more welcome experience. Bronze twisted tights-sculptures (recent works, entitled NUDS, 2009-present) sit atop breezeblock plinths, like Old Master monuments and quite beautiful portraits are formed from the twisting of cigarettes. Trotsky’s beard is presented through waves of Marlboro Lights.
Lucas’ view of sex and humanity is a bleak one. At times it is led by a strong tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, but overall it’s distressing and abject. Her vitriolic feminist reactions to patriarchy are entirely justified, intelligent, and powerful: blown-up photographs of misogynist tabloid headlines, scrawled lists of derogatory terms for women, and a violent masculine reaction to constructed femininity. These are strong statements.
Nevertheless, the poignancy of these works is overpowered by the polymorphously perverse shock tactics of the majority of her oeuvre. There is certainly something to be said about Lucas’ power to repulse and to create works, which provoke a strong, full-body reaction, but it does grow tiresome. References to Duchamp’s urinal are exhausted and overdone and pieces feel novel. Whatever one feels about “SITUATION,” though, it certainly is (by no means edible) food for thought.