Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
through September 1
“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go its pretty damn good.” ~ Woody Allen
“Sex is full of lies…” ~ Jim Morrison
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Sarah Lucas’s show, a retrospective at The Hammer of photographs, installations, wallpaper, sculptures and videos, is as irreverent and smokin’ hot as ever. The title is from her raunchy sculpture ironically entitled Au Naturel, 1994, mattress, melons, oranges, cucumber, and water bucket, 33 1/8” x 66 1/8” x 57.” Two melons representing breasts are inserted into the ripped top of an old stained mattress, which is propped casually against the wall, while a cucumber and two oranges clearly substitute for an erect penis and balls– and the bucket, well, it is used to collect fluids, is it not? “Au Naturel,” is a delicate French phrase for “naked” which is an amusing choice for the title, as Lucas reduces sex to crass body parts- penises, anuses and vaginas (though I think Lucas might prefer grittier terminology.)
An early black and white self- portrait, entitled Sarah Lucas, Eating a Banana, 1990, 41 3/8 x 44 3/8 inches, is a still photograph of the artist doing just that while looking suggestively and rebelliously at the viewer. In another amusing piece entitled Sausage Film, 1990, Betacam SP video, color, sound 9:20, Lucas is sitting at an outdoor table casually cutting a sausage, all the while wearing a deadpan expression. Lucas brashly reduces the sexual act down to its dirty, unapologetic self while wittily employing suggestive food substitutes for male and female anatomy. In truth, the language of sex does share the same lexicon for enjoying food. The lusty dining scene in the 1963 movie “Tom Jones,” where the two actors seductively and hilariously eat everything from crab legs to pears while hungrily eyeing each other up comes to mind!
Lucas gives a knowing nod to the viewer which implies that she knows what one does in private or in secret, because she does it it too. And please don’t dare sugarcoat it with romance. Lucas displays a stripped down, no nonsense attitude towards sex, highlighting its messiness, awkwardness and kinkiness. In Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, C-print, 60 x 48 inches, the artist is seated in a chair, with two fried eggs on her boobs, legs spread apart insolently, highlighting her intentionally impolite pose and grunge attire. Often Lucas uses eggs for their visual shape (fried eggs in particular) as a symbol of fertility, or as a painting tool! On May 24, 2019, Sarah Lucas instructed a large group of women at The Hammer, and a few men dressed as women, to throw (neatly) 1,000 eggs at a white wall as a collaborative performance creating a large scale ABEX painting entitled One Thousand Eggs For Women. The multifaceted egg yolk has been used for centuries to make long-lasting tempera– if you’ve ever forgotten to clean eggs off of a plate you know how hard it is to remove. Eggs are thrown along with tomatoes at people one despises or wishes to protest against. However, the result of this performance is a surprisingly tame image streaked with shiny vertical yellowish stripes, almost evenly spaced, dancing daintily against a matte ground, belying the violence of its creation.
Lucas’s has a predilection for controversial themes. The irreverent, Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy, 2003, fiberglass and cigarettes, 77 x 72 x 16 inches asks the viewer to look at a cigarette encrusted crucifix and imagine what isn’t easy. The title is taken from John Lennon’s lyrics in the Ballad of John and Yoko album where he expresses his frustration at the excoriating media articles about his relationship with Yoko Ono. And he sings … ”the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.” If Lucas is using the cigarette here as an example of addictive and habitual behavior, perhaps she is commenting on religion as a similar crutch or reflexive behavior? And what about the frequent use of the word “christ” as an expression of disgust, exasperation or dismay in the vernacular in England and America?
Cigarettes figure prominently in other works, where concrete casts from the waist down of a nude woman (similar to George Segal plaster cast figures) have a cigarette shoved into bodily orifices looking like fiery butt plugs or TNT fuses. Either way, it is quite an intense image. Lucas gives vent to an almost schoolboy/girl fascination with bodily fluids and sex in unconventional spaces (the office figures prominently here) with her Bunny Gets Snookered installation. The “Bunnies” are pantyhose stuffed legs attached to office chairs set around the snooker (pool) table. Reminiscent of Edward Keinholz’s installations, though decidedly more arch, this piece, like so many of Lucas’s works, is also a pun. Snookered means getting fooled, or even getting laid. These ribald gals are reduced down to their lower half of their bodies, legs spread, with even a second pair of legs thrown acrobatically over the back of the chair.
There are several iterations of toilets as subject matter, starting with the grotesquely dirty and rusty toilet depicted in the photograph Is Suicide Genetic? 1996, C-print, 21 1/8 x 17 1/8 inches (with the words scrawled in brown paint to simulate excrement.) Nature Abhors A Vacuum, 1998 is a more elegant version with a toilet completely covered with pristine cigarettes. Then there is the series of urine colored translucent toilets made of cast resin mounted on top of store bought freezers in the Floppy Toilet 2017. In twenty years, the toilet as subject moved from a seedy, abject object, to a smooth surface to work on (perhaps a nod to Duchamp’s urinal) to the enigmatic juxtaposition of a commercial object used for refrigeration (but not unlike the normal white sculpture plinth) and an object meant to dispose of human waste. Bringing to mind “garbage in, garbage out” and “you are what you eat”.
There are too many compelling installations to comment on them all, but I must remark on the large scale, smack-you-in-the-face piece entitled Chicken Knickers, 2014 wallpaper. This is pure vintage impertinent Sarah Lucas. A young, svelte female torso is shown in white “granny” underpants with a chicken hanging upside down attached to the underpants with the chicken’s beheaded gullet looking surprisingly like a vagina. The curators have staged a giant white concrete phallus, Eros, 2013, cast concrete, crushed car, about the same size and shape as a cannon, exactly opposite “her” — so ready, aim, fire! This piece is the essence of the struggle and tension between the sexes.
Did I point out that there are a plethora of penises everywhere one looks in this retrospective, mostly made of rough white concrete and eerily reminiscent of plaster castings that groupies in the nineteen sixties did of rock stars penises while fluffing them up?
To counter all the phalluses, there is a room filled with egg like sculptures made of accumulations of nylons and fluff, that are reminiscent of Senga Nengudi’s pantyhose sculptures from the 1970’s and shiny metallic balloon-like penises that (hopefully) parody Jeff Koon’s work. Although, her earliest multi-disciplinary pieces were rough and raw, echoing the themes of alienation, loneliness and disconnectedness then prevalent in the grunge and punk world, her newer art has gently matured into still truthful ruminations on the sticky topic of sex and society with her trademark sassy sense of humor intact.