Some people need to live in a big city to kick back against convention, whereas other people are born that way. Sarah Lucas is both the former and latter. The legendary London-born artist has established a reputation for being one of the most subversive members of the Young British Artists, refusing to conform to expectations of what a female artist should be. She’s also one of the few from this generation to keep her artistic integrity and wit intact.
Granted, a handful of her cohorts have enjoyed – even exceeded – her commercial success. However, not many have maintained her level of artistic experimentation. What’s unique about Lucas is her ability to turn everyday materials like food products and discarded furniture into salacious and thought-provoking art objects. Their often macabre quality, combined with humorous references, is what gives them their strength, and an astonishing ability to explore difficult themes of subjective and collective experiences. In her works, female and male qualities are constantly being questioned while producing ambivalent associations and interpretations. Take from example “Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab” (1992): simultaneously a sculpture and an installation, it plays with the sexual potential of food among other esoteric references.
“The difficult thing [for female artists] is to achieve the level of fame and the prices that some male artists receive” – Sarah Lucas
Her upcoming “Sarah Lucas: Good Muse” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum is typical of this approach. Functioning as homage to her legacy of debunking the crudeness of stereotypical conceptions of gender and sexuality, the artist juxtaposes her work with Rodin’s erotic paintings and sculptures, while challenging his idealising male gaze. Unsurprisingly, Lucas doesn’t share much with the French master. “I’m not sure he has influenced me really, although influence is a difficult thing to trace, on an individual or through history,” she says.
Nonetheless, upon reading You Must Change Your Life, a book about Rodin’s relationship with the German Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Lucas realized that they share other life experiences like their humble origins. “Another surprise was to find that Rilke and Rodin had apartments at the Hotel Biron at the same time as Cocteau and Édouard de Max, among others,” she says. “That sort of mad salon is a lot like my life has been. Since college days, when I lived in shared houses with other students, and through all the wild YBA years that were an ongoing creative party.”
And wild those years were. The YBAs were notorious for causing havoc with their rowdy behaviour wherever they went. Yet at the same time they produced some of the most powerful, memorable and controversial artworks of the Nineties. Some of those include Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Damien Hirst’s shark and Lucas’ very own found mattress. And like Emin and Hirst, the artist’s oeuvre has received multiple awards and been invited to show at some of the most prestigious openings on Earth. One such event was the 56th Venice Biennale, where she was chosen to represent the UK. This year’s Biennale also features female sculptor, Phyllida Barlow, whose work has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. Lucas believes the art world still has a long way to go in valuing female creativity. “I think female artists in general have had some recognition for a long while now,” she says. “The difficult thing is to achieve the level of fame, and the prices (and mostly it’s high prices that determine the level of fame) that some male artists achieve. At least it’s moving in the right direction.”
For the British Pavilion in 2015, Sarah Lucas delivered a riveting installation of sculptures and pictures that once looked back over her CV as well as demonstrating that she was sharper than ever. Entitled “I SCREAM DADDIO,” its walls were painted custard yellow. Throughout there were other egg references, including a washing machine with a yellow inverted door and huge yellow sculptures that mixed phallic and mammary events. Some of the sculptures were made of casts, and functioned like reversed busts, whereby the orifices of lower parts of bodies- including relief of her own- had cigarettes stuck in them that transformed them into faces. Throughout her career, Lucas has consistently played with supposedly opposing elements, juxtaposing materials, repressed truths and gender issues with plenty of sensuality and humour. Indeed, one of her most iconic images, “Self Portrait with Fried Eggs”(1996), does just this. In it, the artist is captured reclining in a chair posing with two fried eggs on top of her breasts. Reproduced countless times on social media, its pull is derived from the aesthetic representation of her breasts as eggs and its direct comment on the objectification of women’s bodies.
“To me, a strong united Europe, and indeed a strong united Great Britain, makes sense. I’ve no idea what changes Brexit will bring. I’m tempted to say nobody does” – Sarah Lucas
True to form, her Berlin show at Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA) Charlottenburg, which opened on Easter weekend this year, also features a lot of eggs. In “FunQroc,” a collaboration with artist Julian Simmons, Lucas directed a series of events, concerts and collective art-making activities. One of these included a group of people throwing dozens of eggs against a wall, resulting in a very ‘organic’ painting. The participants included artists, friends and their families who took part in the 4-day extravaganza that lingered late into the evening and often turned into a party. The show had an almost ceremonial and cathartic feel, with participants throwing paint onto her sculptures while the violin played- including kids who left just before things got a little wild.
Evidently, the artist still enjoys life to the fullest. When SLEEK met her at CFA in the early afternoon on the last day of her show, we started the day with a celebratory Easter wine. And despite the good mood there was one topic Brits in Berlin couldn’t run away from: “I’m a Remainer,” she admits in reference to Brexit. “To me, a strong united Europe, and indeed a strong united Great Britain, makes sense. I’ve no idea what changes Brexit will bring. I’m tempted to say nobody does.” Fame and fortune have however not changed Lucas, who still hangs out with her long time troupe which includes reborn YBA Nick Fudge and artist Don Brown, whose portrait Polaroid featured in her Venice show. She often even brings these friends with her to shows. “I bring [them] partly for fun and partly for context,”she says. “A muse isn’t necessarily a particular person, the model, it can also be an outlook on life- musing. In Rodin’s case that meant the model or models coming to sit for him and he was the boss, the big ego. I’m a bit more egalitarian. Art and life are not separate.”
“Sarah Lucas: Good Muse” is on display at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor from 15 July until 17 September 2017