SAN FRANCISCO — The British sculptor Sarah Lucas is facing off against Auguste Rodin at the Legion of Honor museum. Sarah Lucas: Good Muse is the latest in a series of exhibitions celebrating and contextualizing the work of Rodin, who died 100 years ago this year. Preceding Good Muse was an exhibition by Urs Fischer, which pivoted on a discussion about the specificity and timelessness of iconography. This fall, the final show in the series will feature Rodin’s contemporary Gustav Klimt, exemplar of the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau, in what promises to be a point-counterpoint between two titans of European Modernism.
In keeping with the exhibition series’ focus on reappraisal, Good Muse tackles several issues contemporary audiences find redolent throughout Rodin’s oeuvre — and art history generally — namely identity, agency, and the gaze. In a cheeky nod to this process of critical reevaluation, the galleries are largely arranged such that Rodin’s works and Old Master paintings from the museum’s collection encircle and literally gaze upon Lucas’s art. Particularly poignant is “Tit Teddy” (2017), the individual components of which are called teddies and which is staged literally at the feet and in the grip of Rodin’s “Three Shades” (1898). The composition of this pairing renders the teddies diminutive, their supple bodies at the mercy of “Three Shades.” As the lone moment of physical contact in the exhibition’s ocean of voyeurism, the implication writ large is that Lucas’s works are both beneficiaries of and subordinates to Rodin’s legacy. It would have been more dynamic to see one of her teddies mount the head of one of the “Shades,” thereby bringing greater tension to a well-worn narrative of enshrined male artists dominating historical narratives.
The show’s highlight is Lucas’s “My Disease” (2017), a master class in objectification and introspection made specifically for Good Muse. The piece features a mattress riddled with cotton bulbs that resemble breasts, slumped over on an upturned and stripped box spring, and pierced through with fluorescent lights reminiscent of a Renaissance image of Saint Sebastian. Idealized classics like the nearby Rodin “Age of Bronze” (1876) highlight the grotesque, surreal monumentality of “My Disease.” “Age of Bronze” acts as a foil to Lucas’s glowing work, with the former being the distillate of idealization and the latter totally deconstructing that notion. A lowly bed, in Lucas’s hands, becomes a meditation on the quest for merging the sacred and profane into a more complete form of fulfillment.