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There are two ruined mattresses in Sarah Lucas’ retrospective at the New Museum, called Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, the British artist’s first-ever American survey. One has the color of curdled milk while the other is a carnal red. The former (1991’s “Au Naturel”) hosts a sexually suggestive arrangement of fruits evoking male genitalia and female breasts that sit above a wide bucket symbolizing a woman’s vagina. The latter (2000’s “The Pleasure Principle”) is hung from a rack and pierced by a fluorescent light, which looks like a post-industrial nod to Rembrandt’s famous “Slaughtered Ox.” A lightbulb-and-wire outline of a woman’s body hangs beside it like a ghost.
There is good reason that the above-mentioned works are arguably two of Lucas’ most famous. Each situates a feminist body politic within a broader discussion of violence and desire. If the mattress elicits eroticism, then it also symbolizes danger as the site of many sexual assaults. We must disentangle the relationship between power and sex if we are ever to understand the socio-political messages underlying the #MeToo Movement. To get there, it might help to better visualize how gender dynamics work in our culture. This has been Lucas’ remit for much of the last thirty years, despite seeing little change between the culture wars of the 1990s and today. She takes her task in stride with dark British wit and a tongue-in-cheek attitude to boot. She’s also a clever student of art history, incorporating references along the way to everyone from Louise Bourgeois to Dan Flavin, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Arp.
The genitalia extravaganza seen across all three floors of the New Museum exhibition testifies to Lucas’ attention to the sexual iconography our dirty minds create. Two fried eggs? Those are breasts. Decapitated chicken? That’s a vagina. Stuffed pantyhose? You can only imagine — but she’s sewn them all together into a bulbously erotic swing chair, just in case you can’t.
Lucas thrives on such potty humor; it’s her capricious stage for the dismantling of our phallus-obsessed culture that still subconsciously runs on the Oedipal conjectures of Freudian psychoanalysis. This approach is most obvious on Au Naturel’s top floor, which houses some of the artist’s most expensively-produced works. With cheeky titles like “Eros” (2013) and “Priapus” (2013), the sculptures on display jab at toxic masculinity. Lucas allots ample space here for presenting massive cement penises balanced upon blocks of crushed car parts. Almost too literal, the sculpture represents a phallus destroying a symbol of machismo. Really, this entire gallery is devoted to the self-defeating glorification of masculinity. Why else display a crucified Jesus on the wall — embodied by several hundred cigarettes — than to make a statement about our poisonous relationship to all symbols of the patriarchy, divine or otherwise? Titled “Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy” (2003), the wall sculpture also encompasses Lucas’ desire to push the boundaries of censorship in art. The cigarettes that compose the Son of Gods body are also a common motif for the artist — symbols of mortality and carelessness.
Lucas has long represented a certain pugnacious factor of the feminist art scene, and the New Museum’s retrospective illuminates how fundamental and funny her criticisms of the art historical canon are. Things certainly get political midway through the exhibition, which focuses on works she made around the beginning of the Iraq War. How can you not laugh with bitter irony upon viewing “Unknown Soldier” (2003), which again critiques self-defeating masculinity in context of the Invasion of Iraq by appropriating minimalist artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light works? Phallically placed between two soldier boots, Lucas uses the light as a ghostly symbol, a mournful lament of how masculinity can often beget unneeded belligerence.
A key mechanic of Lucas’ work is cliché, which functions in the gap between logic and punchline. Instead of bridging that chasm, the artist attempts to expand that space between rationale and ridicule. There is an assumption in her work, especially in her self-portraits, that we can complete her conceptual puzzle. And why not? If we can understand the meaning behind idioms like “Cat got your tongue,” then surely we can summon the moxie necessary to accurately read Lucas’ images, like the self-portrait photograph in which she cradles a dead salmon across her left arm. The deceptive simplicity of this photograph allows a surfeit of interpretations. What immediately came to mind is how, in slang, the term “fishy” contains a double entendre: it can pejoratively refer to the smell of someone’s vagina or positively describe a drag queen’s ability to convincingly pass as female. Elsewhere, the image is defined as an overt visual pun on the idea of a female erection.
Autobiographically, Lucas’ self-portrait photographs from the ’90s reflect her changed perception of her supposedly “masculine” appearance from negative to positive. “I suddenly could see the strength of the masculinity about it,” she once said. “The usefulness of it to the subject struck me at that point, and since then I’ve used that.”
Rather than launching into a wholesale annihilation of masculinity, Lucas is more interested in subverting the existing gender system altogether. In her pursuit of a new social order, she sometimes gets ritualistic and downright witchy — as seen in “Egg Massage” (2015). Potentially my favorite work in the exhibition, it depicts Lucas smothering her partner Julian Simmons’ bare behind with squashed egg yolks. Surrounding by lit candles, a peach, and a half-cut pineapple, the scene has the presumption of a still-life mixed with the nude effrontery of performance art. The camera is similarly rude, zooming in close to Simmons’ buttocks as the yellow yolk streaks into his crevices. Here and there, Lucas breaks into laughter.
Upon watching this video, I was immediately struck by its parallels and departures from Yves Klein’s infamous “Anthropometry” paintings from the 1960s. For those, Klein instructed his female models to douse themselves in his self-named blue paint before imprinting their bodies on a floor-laid canvas while boozy spectators watched and classical musicians played. Lucas strips away the spectacle of such a performance, removes the canvas, and reverses the gender dynamics — but something about that gesture remains. The egg becomes a reference to the female reproduction system, but the stringed-out yolks that cover Simmons’ body also resemble the consistency of semen. Lucas’s desire to cover her denuded lover in the gooey substance is like a funhouse Freudian mirror into Klein’s own impulse to see his female models coated in paint.
“Egg Massage” reveals a triumph of agency for the artist. Although existential dread underpins most of her work, Lucas melds that anxiety into productivity, laughter even. In the #MeToo era, her work represents a relief from didacticism: she doesn’t just tell you about inequality, but shows it to you from every angle.
Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel continues through January 20, 2019 at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director, and Margot Norton.