In subway advertisements throughout the city, the artist Sarah Lucas appears in a self-portrait, tomboyish and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Selfish in Bed.” Rhetorically or symbolically, she is turning the tables on millenniums of female inequality, from the boardroom to the bedroom.
You’ll see that image at “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” her career survey at the New Museum, along with a giant portrait-as-wallpaper, as you get off the elevator on the fourth floor: It captures her seated, her feet firmly on the ground, woman-spreading (if there is such a thing). She is fully clothed, wearing jeans and flat-soled boots and staring you down.
Everywhere you go in the New York art world, on social media, at gallery openings and other public gatherings, people are remarking that “Au Naturel” is the perfect exhibition for this moment. In some ways this is true: Ms. Lucas is all swagger and bravado and confidence.
The self-portraits are one of her weapons. Instead of sexualized, made-up or fantastic portraits, hers are plain, androgynous and deadpan. And the exhibition, with its 150 objects — many of them sculptures created in plaster, or from women’s stockings and tights stuffed with fluff — is populated with penises and with cigarettes penetrating buttocks, rather than the breasts and vulvas modern artists used to demonstrate their edginess. At just the right moment — the #MeToo moment — Ms. Lucas shows us what it’s like to be a strong, self-determining woman; to shape and construct your own world; to live beyond other people’s constricting terms; to challenge oppression, sexual dominance and abuse.
For a certain generation, at a certain place and time — Britain, post-70s feminism, under the rule of Margaret Thatcher (nicknamed the “Iron Lady”) — this turnabout seemed possible.
Ms. Lucas emerged in the 1990s with the YBAs (Young British Artists), a group that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin and didn’t focus on a particular medium or style. They were postpunk — which is to say, more focused on attitude than aptitude — with a Generation X nihilism and malaise, and the clear message that anything, artistically, could be borrowed, stolen or sampled. In fact, one of the criticisms that swirls around Ms. Lucas’s work is that it looks an awful lot like that of other artists, including the stuffed doll sculptures made by the German Surrealist Hans Bellmer in the 1930s.
Fair enough. Ms. Lucas’s “Bunny Gets Snookered” series, from 1997, offers a gallery of stuffed pantyhose forms slouching on their own chairs, mimicking skinny, limp half-bodies that borrow from the soft-sculpture aesthetic of Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama and, less often mentioned, the African-American artist Senga Nengudi. (In fact, Ms. Lucas’s “Mumum” from 2012, a cluster of breastlike forms made from fluff-filled stockings closely resembles a work by Ms. Nengudi currently in the exhibition “The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.” at the Shiva Gallery at John Jay College.)
But Ms. Lucas is great in this mode, borrowing from this soft-sculpture vocabulary but upping the ante by adding “tough” materials like concrete-block pedestals, cigarette butts or broken eggs. (An entire museum wall is covered with the remains of a cathartic, collective egg-throwing performance by women, an act perhaps envisioned as female ejaculations.)
The galleries are filled, perhaps overfilled, with bulging tubes and protuberances that suggest body parts and desires — as well as fears and phobias — possibly for sex or death. In 2000, Ms. Lucas mounted an installation at the Freud Museum in London, titled “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” — after Freud’s 1920 essay — that is on view here; it includes dangling light bulbs that vaguely resemble body parts, but also pokes at Freud with feminist aplomb.
A wall text suggests that the rooms littered with broken or orphaned fixtures and furniture might relate to bombed-out ruins in distant lands, the results of the gulf wars engaged in by the United States and Britain in the ’90s. There are a lot of toilets lying around the galleries that hark back to Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous “Fountain” (1917), a repurposed urinal, but also proving that women can make puerile, potty-humored art, too.
In the same vicinity, a photograph of a filthy toilet with the words “Is Suicide Genetic?” painted in excremental brown, furthers the vulgar existentialism of Ms. Lucas’s work. The photograph, with its perspective tilted down the toilet bowl, recalls the scene in the film “Trainspotting” (1996) in which a character retrieves drugs that have gone down a public toilet. Other works throughout the show reflect the retching, hard-partying antics of London’s art scene at that moment.
Sculpture here is what you choose as much as what you make. Things in your immediate vicinity — toilets, clothes, food, furniture — can be memorialized as art objects, as fetishes, talismans, or what psychoanalysts called “transitional objects,” like security blankets.
Ms. Lucas’s most famous object is also here, providing a title for the exhibition: “Au Naturel” (1994) is a simple but powerful sculpture. A dirty folded mattress slouches against the wall, like a seated human body. Inserted into rough openings on the surface of the mattress are two oranges and a cucumber, suggesting male genitalia, and two honeydew melons and a scuffed bucket, representing a woman. The work is effective, drawing from the Ed and Nancy Kienholz school of deadpan sculpture, made with junk or household objects, but also Picasso’s way of sketching bodies or still lifes with a few deft objects or lines. Its title suggests sexy, pastoral nudism. The reality is starker, grittier and a bit depressing.
And yet, this monument of ’90s grunge art stopped me for a moment. I have always thought it was a brilliant work, simultaneously celebrating the possibilities of sculpture and deflating its pretensions.
But “perfect for this moment?” I’m not sure. In an age of fluid gender identities — it feels, well, binary. Sex here is still an act between a woman and a man, underscoring old ideas and not just of heterosexuality and “heteronormative” politics. It feels emblematic of the YBAs: They were radical in the sense that they were white working-class kids in Britain who cannily snookered the art system and became rich, famous and iconic. But this stance has serious limitations.
I never thought I’d be asking this, but at what point does punk white culture start to feel privileged? In a wall text Ms. Lucas describes those hard-living days in London, walking the streets in the early morning with a hangover coming on, wondering, “if this is all there is, this world here,” and “if this is it, given infinite possibility, why is it so shabby?” And “if we’re so keen to be alive, to survive, why the self-destructive behavior? Why the smoking, drinking, drugging?”
In this era, post-Brexit, when thousands of people have died in recent years attempting to reach the safety of “shabby” London — or any toehold in Western Europe — the message here, of being white and bored and disaffected, feels dissonant. A video made in 2015, when Ms. Lucas represented Britain in the Venice Biennale, captures her lying on the floor of a palazzo in Venice, the water lapping at the steps, reading the poetry of another erstwhile British bad boy, D.H. Lawrence. It feels elegiac, cozy, luxurious.
On the one hand, it’s thrilling that the New Museum and the show’s curators, Massimiliano Gioni and Margot Norton, have devoted three floors to a woman’s work. Ms. Lucas remains a wonderfully bold and subversive model for women in this #MeToo moment. Her career should be the ultimate rallying cry for female rage, striking out in an age that demands that women grab back.
But the question posed by Ms. Lucas in the ’90s nags: Is this all there is? She was part of one cultural correction around class and gender in Britain and now we’re in another, with disintegrating borders, genders and species categories — even glaciers — in which white European ennui feels almost like a luxury product. A spate of recent stuffed-stocking sculptures carries on Ms. Lucas’s bodily abstractions and obsessions, generally continuing in the same vein as before. In this sense, Ms. Lucas’s art feels like an important historical springboard from which to expand beyond the intrepid and irreverent platform of the Young British Artists, into the next millennium.
Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel
Through Jan. 20 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan; 212-219-1222, newmuseum.org.
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