Perhaps the greatest irony of many in this first solo London show of Sarah Lucas is that it is sponsored by Louis Vuitton. ‘Symbolising French elegance and joie de vivre, the Maison LV has always collaborated with the best engineers, decorators and artists,’ it claims. Well, welcome to a new world. Soiled mattresses provocatively pierced by fruit’n’veg, two dessicated hams shoved into a pair of knickers, a mechanical ‘wanking’ machine, a primeval soup of penises — you get the drift. It is of course vintage Lucas, a retrospective of work drawn from two decades of artistic confrontation, and the site she has chosen for this engagement is the human body.
And how cleverly she articulates it. Emerging on to the London art scene in the late 1980s when all the successful artists seemed to be men, Lucas had a bone to pick, and wasted no time in doing so. Gathering together the detritus of life, Duchamp-style, she stitched her component elements into rude, raunchy assemblages ripe with suggestion: not for nothing does the Whitechapel bill the show ‘not recommended for children’.
But the sheer grunge of those early works — the soiled toilet bowl graffitied ‘IS SUICIDE GENETIC?’, the splayed and abject bunny girls fashioned from stuffed tights, the stained mattress hung with two fried eggs and a dried herring (‘Spinster’) — is offset here by the clean lines of a range of modular furniture made from slate-grey breeze blocks, on which her figures loll.
Lucas’s work is always playful, tongue in cheek, from the giant phallic marrow that greets you as you arrive to the cement penises, ‘Eros’ and ‘Priapus’, that bestride the final gallery. She revels in euphemism and double-entendre, and it is fun to stumble upon new references before they trip you up: the obvious nod to Duchamp in the prize collection of urinals, an object she finds beautiful — and who is to argue when it is remodelled as a translucent throne? The Laocoön-like ‘Nuds’ twist in upon themselves like embracing lovers, or pythons suffocating their prey, but perhaps owe more in their later bronze abandon to Picasso and the Surrealists. It was they, after all, who most powerfully unpacked the body and made it monstrous, a tangle of contorted limbs and genitalia, and the debt here seems undeniable.
Lucas’s automata, too, hark back to Surrealist notions of the unconscious, and manage to combine the sinister and comic: a juddering mobile of concrete pies; an arm forlornly waving from the suspended zeppelin. None of Lucas’s ‘bodies’ has a head, and there is an existential angst about these apparently purposeless creatures condemned to their erotic destiny.
But they are overlooked in Gallery 1 by photos of the artist herself, defiant in pose, whether accessorised with fried eggs/banana or dispassionately surveying her collected work. That defiance, tempered by her memento mori ‘Self-Portrait with Skull’ on the stairs, seems almost muted by the time we get to Gallery 3, where she has moved from assemblages of found objects to a different, softer aesthetic, creating forms closer to abstraction.
Cigarettes are her chosen medium to depict a couple making sinuous love (echoes here of Mayan art) and the face of Leon Trotsky. And beyond the sentinel ‘Nice Tits’, a deck of ‘breasts’ suspended above concrete platform boots, the gallery almost dances with rampant, priapic forms in glittering bronze, disporting themselves around two vast phalluses, beached on the inert forms of densely compacted cars.
For all the teasing, Sarah Lucas tackles the big themes, eros and thanatos, head-on. And she does so with guts and gusto, and more than a nod to the canon. Perhaps it is not so surprising that Louis Vuitton has sponsored her, after all.
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A film about the 1990s British art scene, Two Melons and a Stinking Fish by Vanessa Engle, will be shown on BBC4 on 4 November.
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