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PITTSBURGH — “We do it with love” (2005) is a photograph currently on view at the New Museum in Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, but I prefer it above my bed. The print is about the size of my torso, and shows a close-up of someone’s breast wearing a light purple bra which in turn wears a makeshift lapel pin: a safety pin pierced through a cigarette butt that has a paper matchstick attached to the back. It creates a kind of cross pendant, or a tiny person with outstretched arms. Perusing the Art Lending Collection of the Braddock Carnegie Library just outside of Pittsburgh was my first time learning of this work, which took me off guard since I thought I knew her work well. It is available to the public to check out as you would a book, so I took it home and hung it above my bed without a second thought.
Libraries are generous in the way they provide so many firsts. The first time I used a computer. The first time I used that computer to search “underwear” and then “hot guys” and then added words to the search bar until I was in a confusing and exhilarating tunnel of images. The first time I saw art include men who were nude but weren’t Jesus was in seventh grade when I stumbled upon a monograph called Dirty Pictures and opened it to reveal hundreds of drawings by someone from Finland named Tom. (I re-shelved the book in the wrong section so it would be lost to anyone but me, just in case I needed it.) The first time I saw an old man use that same computer I had used, he printed out hundreds of images of professional wrestlers, carefully turning the top one over to make a discreet stack, to take over to the tiny circulation desk, paying ten cents per print-out.
What do libraries have to do with shame? Or, rather, what do libraries have to do with whatever the opposite of shame is? Libraries don’t offer pride or approval, but maybe space for a certain kind of freedom. They are inherently private and personal spaces — gone with card catalogues is any log of whatever I’ve checked out, as libraries now keep no records of what has been borrowed after items are returned.
In Describe This Distance, Quinn Latimer writes about Lucas’s work, “Shame’s basest and barest origination is sex. Thus there is distinct pleasure to be had in shame — our own and others’. Lucas knows this. And if sex and pleasure are systems, so is the body, the origin and inauguration of organization and organizations.” If sex, shame, pleasure, and the body are systems — systems increasingly controlled by bad men — I can’t help but think of the other systems that Lucas’s work engages with: museums, galleries, and this library near my house. (The library is the anomaly.) Above my gay little bed seems like the perfect context for this breast photograph, at least for a while. From the library to the bedroom and back to the library again is the type of system suited for this photograph, more so than museum storage or a billionaire’s dining room. So the library, this system of generosity, this socialist invention, not only provides me with easy access (literal, physical access) to Lucas’s work, but helps me rethink its role in the other systems it circulates throughout.
When I think of libraries and shame, and museums or galleries, and of this photograph, and of Lucas’s work in general, class becomes an obvious factor. Systems that order us, that welcome some in and keep others out, are not lost on Lucas. I think of the little lowbrow angel pin attached to the purple bra: what is the affiliation being marked here? The library where I got the photo calls itself “community-centered,” and I take that to mean that its offerings are directed and led by the people who live near it; the “in” group is whoever wants to engage, which feels radical in a moment where tribalism and us-versus-them thinking seems to dominate.
Kealey Boyd wrote about the rise of art lending libraries for Hyperallergic, and in it Dana Bishop-Root, co-creator of the Art Lending Library I went to, said, “An art museum, to some extent, participates in the marketplace. A library is about the free exchange of resources and ideas. It operates outside of the dominate or capitalist system.” The art collection in Braddock sits alongside other lending collections, including books of course, but also puppets and tools — that you can leave the library with a weed wacker, a novel, and this photograph all tucked under your arm, firmly positions art as an important resource, something you might need.
So, back to this image, this image I needed, for a reason I can’t quite yet grasp. The cigarette and matchstick pin, though a simple assemblage, is fraught. Lucas’s pin doesn’t merely mock the little pins one might wear to designate being part of a group, religious or otherwise, but instead seems to challenge the viewer to figure out what they believe in, to make use of whatever they’ve got in their pocket to represent what they care about. Or maybe I’m hopeful.
Lucas’s 1992 exhibition at City Racing Gallery in London which hurled her into the canon was called Penis Nailed to a Board. The exhibition title is almost sculptural, combining body, action, and object. When my mind conjures the corresponding imagery and assembles the components, it’s a macabre scene. The work above our bed also has a piercing action which unites the person with the bodies of other things. But there’s a decided lack of gore here which makes it distinct from the exhibition thirteen years earlier; it’s quiet, tender. In a way, the title We Do It With Love is more shocking than Lucas’s other more jarring gestures — giant pink dicks, cigarettes gingerly inserted inside plaster casts of bent over assholes. To acknowledge love explicitly within art is somewhat unusual, especially compared to music, poetry, or film. I decide to use the image as a guiding principle somehow, a manifesto for love: close-up, piercing, soft. But then I look again — burnt-out, barely hanging on — and reconsider.
I don’t entirely trust this photograph. I start to doubt my interpretation of it and wonder if it’s making fun of me. Recently, I wandered through an old church with my boyfriend to look at the architecture, and found a tiny rainbow flag pin attached to a pamphlet about “loving our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.” I snatched the pin and attached it to my backpack, not because I identify as queer, though I do, but because I liked the twisted notion of cosplaying as a straight ally. (I’m not fooling anyone.) This week, I suddenly felt embarrassed by the pin and stuck it in the backpack’s pocket. Is Lucas critiquing the way we align ourselves with tribes and attach tacky things to our bodies to signify that, or is she making a plea for the viewer to make a provisional pin of their own, to mark themselves and organize? When I checked the photograph out from the library, the librarian Mary Carey had told me about how one work in the collection really looks better upside down. When I remembered this, I hung the work upside down for the rest of the week.
I begin to count my life in relationship to the work above our bed. In the month it hung there, we fucked only twice, I called my mom twice, I cared for a child once, I didn’t pray, I smoked one cigarette. I stand on my bed to stare at the photograph, I see my reflection in the glass and contemplate the title and who the subject of the photo might be. Is it a self-portrait or not? Maybe if I have to ask, it’s not. But who is the “We” that is doing “it” with love? And what is the it? Does it matter? Can I join?