At UCLA’s Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (through September 1)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
It’s been said that all great artists have only a few “real” subjects and those subjects nearly always reference love, sex or death. In fact, these pivotal subjects could arguably be the holy trinity when it comes to the imagination and the deeper impulses that drive the creative process. So, Picasso had his underage lovers, his bull testicles and his minotaur. Magritte his pipe, umbrellas and top hats and Cezanne his monumental, sacred mountain. Similarly, and in the tradition of such obsessive preoccupations, Sarah Lucas, in her most recent retrospective, organized by The New Museum now newly restaged at the Hammer Museum, reveals yet again her fascination with cigarettes, surrealism, panty hose, the ever-enduring phallus and chicken carcasses, not necessarily in that order. These might seem like obvious choices in terms of subject matter for a woman whose work takes on epic themes like male dominance, female identity and subjectivity especially as it relates to women’s bodies being used and exploited by the media, the beauty and pure energy of common everyday materials and finally the desire to speak out on behalf of women using humor and simplicity as a vehicle for change, but if you think that — you’re wrong. The obviousness inherent in her choices simply re-contextualizes these themes, allowing that the viewer enter them through a keen and unwavering sardonic wit, sometimes ribald — at other times, deliberately sad and pathetic — making it impossible to deny their deeper meaning.
Lucas is not the first artist to recognize the subtle and persuasive power of dark humor. Other artists like Louise Bourgeois, Alina Szapocznikow, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and much more recently Doreen Garner, Kris Lemsalu and Monika Grabuschnigg, speak to issues of female empowerment and the various and often subtle ways women are disenfranchised or completely erased from history. Lucas, who was part of the Young British Artists movement that emerged during the 1990s, continues her exploration into the fundamental complexities of being both an artist and a strongly opinionated female voice amid the ever-rising din of patriarchy. Indeed, her work feels more necessary than ever now given the fact women and minorities are losing advocacy daily amidst the rise of white supremacy and hate crimes across the globe. While the show does at times read like a “best of” compilation, there are many surprises here.
The languid shapes that comprise her series of body sculptures made with tights, fluff and wire with titles like NUD 18, show cased on slabs of gray cement, creates a compelling dialogue between forms, i.e. the hard and distinct edges of the cement in conjunction with the pliable, flesh-like surfaces of the sculptures. Seen all together (there are six shown here) and set against a hazy orange backdrop, one has the feeling of being dropped suddenly into a womb. This room in particular exemplifies Lucas’ interest in subtler forms — amorphous, yet startling erotic. At the center of the room is a hanging bubble chair made entirely of fabric including tights in shapes that resemble breasts and vaginas. Designed by Eero Aarnio from Finland, the bubble chair is a symbol of modernism and is often associated with the ideas of the 1960s. The chair appears strangely weightless, yet the perceived “weight” of the various female body parts creates a tension between the object’s obvious materiality and the work’s intended content. This is not a chair that has any utilitarian purpose, yet who wouldn’t want to be cradled in such liminal space, held somewhere between conception and death, between knowledge and oblivion, between the end of time and the beginning of infinity.
Lucas has always had a sculptural practice, yet her work has also incorporated photography into that practice. In Chicken Knickers, a black and white image originally made in 1997, the artist’s own body, shown from the waist down and wearing a pair of boy’s briefs, sports a plucked chicken in place of a vulva. In the Hammer Museum exhibition, this image is used as wallpaper, covering one entire wall of the gallery. The image itself is familiar as it is surely one of Lucas’ more iconic works, yet the means by which we experience it within the scope of the larger exhibition, forces a different, more complicated understanding of the work. Wallpaper has for centuries been a symbol of wealth and status, yet here Lucas conflates sexuality with the dead carcass of a chicken, and then explodes that image until it fills an entire wall, suggesting perhaps that the male preoccupation with female orifices is out of control and that a woman’s body can be plundered, plucked, bought and sold at any price and then displayed as the ultimate status symbol. In many ways, Lucas is showing us that the orifice itself really is incidental to the darker, more sinister intentions that fuel these desires, or allow that they might exist at all.