Brash. Edgy. Rude. Badass. These are just a few of the words frequently used to describe the work of the British artist Sarah Lucas. As an original member of the loosely affiliated tribe of Young British Artists (or YBAs, including Damian Hirst, Tracy Emin, and Liam Gillick, among others), that rose to prominence in the London scene at the end of 1980s, Lucas made art from wax, resin and found objects that mostly seemed as if they were hauled from a dumpster, embodying many of the punk tenets that brought the group so much attention—and controversy. Her work was broadly sexual, cheerfully sleazy, and subversively humorous. These descriptors persist even though Lucas has now been working for more than thirty years across a wide range of media that includes sculpture, installation, and photography, and seem have become shorthand for discussing her art in a way that now seems pejorative and trivializing. A newly opened retrospective at the New Museum, titled “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” upholds the artist’s image but at the same time probes her work for meaning beneath the superficial audacity.
For many viewers, the show may be an introduction to Lucas. She is renowned in England, but her exposure in the United States till now has been limited to a handful of solo gallery shows and the occasional inclusion in group exhibitions. With nearly 200 works on view at the New Museum, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to see a complete range of her themes and influences. Dating from the artist’s beginnings up through the present day, the retrospective is massive in scope, filling the three main floors of the building. The exhibition takes its name from a 1994 sculpture, Au Naturel, a dirty mattress slumped on the floor and leaning partway against the wall, as if it were creating its own headboard. Situated atop the mattress are two groups of items: a pair of melons and a gaping fire bucket on one side of the mattress, and an outward thrusting cucumber flanked by two oranges on the other. The arrangement is not subtle in its allusions—Lucas practically dares the viewer not to conjure up sex. The work is free and unrepentant and if the viewer is made uncomfortable by this jumble of otherwise unremarkable items, then it begs the question, why?
Much of Lucas’s work is predicated on confronting and destabilizing shame, whether it is shame of the body, shame of gender, or shame of class. Fat, Forty and Flabulous (1990), one of the earliest works in the show, takes on all three. Lucas made an enlargement of a story, ripped from a cheap, tabloid newspaper complete with nude photographs, of a boldly sexual, corpulent woman. She throws her head back Marilyn Monroe-style in one of the images, hand on cocked hip while in another, she shimmies suggestively out of lacy black negligee. The rolls of her flesh are on full display and she remains proud, defying all the mores of standard Western beauty. One’s private prejudices are called to task: why shouldn’t this woman be proud of her body? In spotlighting this newspaper spread once obviously meant to be lurid and mocking, Lucas instead renders compassion and solidarity, and a surprising tenderness.
Many moments of vulnerability are to be found beneath Lucas’s raunchy exteriors. Toilets, the receptacle of the human body’s most ignoble functions and excretions, are a common theme. They make an appearance in a number of sculptures, not only an updated reference and rejoinder to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), but also an inference to the universality of pissing and shitting, one of the great equalizers of humankind. Despite most people’s attempts to hide these acts, they are universal, common to queens and paupers alike. In a gallery replete with toilet sculptures, Lucas underscores this with The Human Toilet II (1996), a photographic self-portrait of the artist herself sitting on the commode. Elsewhere, a gallery devoted to the sculptures she premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale showcases a series of nude, plaster-cast women’s legs lounging about in gloriously suggestive positions: lying prone on a table, climbing a bar stool, and straddling a chair. From each of these lower bodies protrudes a single cigarette, from belly buttons, vaginas, or buttocks. One winces at the susceptibility of the cast’s position with a work such as Edith (2015). The legs kneel at a toilet, the torso bent over the bowl, as a delicate cigarette is clutched between the cheeks of the ass. A certain defenselessness is understood, and the viewer’s urge to protect this person becomes palpable, calling to mind the work of Louise Bourgeois or Alina Szapocznikow, two earlier artists who were fluid in imbuing sculpture with true life force.
The top floor of the museum is devoted to Lucas’s most recent works, much greater in size than most of the pieces on the lower two floors, which for the most part remain at human scale. The monumental proportions disassociate the work somewhat from Lucas’s natural impulse to pure human feeling. A sculpture like This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018), a sawed up and dissembled car that has been covered in glued-down cigarettes is a technically impressive feat, but packs none of the emotional punch that Lucas’s more intimate works are capable of achieving. Instead, a simple, diminutive sculpture like Where Does It All End? (1994) provides a more fervent thrust. Lucas has captured in wax the cast of a snarl, just the lips and chin of an anonymous face, baring its cigarette-clenched teeth. The snarl is scornful and obstinate, unafraid of whatever it has just encountered. It’s this defiance that has long colored Lucas’s reputation as bawdy and impertinent, but it is also what lends her work unaffected emotion. Punk minus cynicism—what all great art might aspire to.