Sarah Lucas | Murphy Beds and A Lot of Yolk
As women, the world infiltrates us with an obscene amount of signs and signifiers, which, in turn, overwhelmingly inform how we relate to our bodies. Playing with the concepts of objectification and vulnerability of the female body, Sarah Lucas, in her new show at the Hammer Museum, Au Naturel, critiques, but also empowers. Whether through casts of female forms, disempowered stuffed stocking sculptures, or erotic imagery, Lucas creates her own depictions of women—disarming, vulnerable, and beautifully approachable in the sculptures’ humanity.
For an artist whose work underscores the vital importance of presentational nuances, Lucas and Hammer Senior Curator, Anne Ellegood, have pooled their respective resources to discover new conversations between Lucas’ body of work, spanning back to the late ‘80s. Due to the Hammer’s spatial and architectural differences from the New Museum in New York, where the show was prior, the install has been tailored to fit the new location. Speaking with Ellegood, she expresses the excitement of arranging the works in a less-than-chronological fashion, resulting in a re-layering and re-contextualizing of sight lines. This resulting survey, Ellegood reasons, may be a collage of works from various times, but together they communicate as “a whole conversation.”
Lucas’ work has always reflected a certain rendering of life; she brilliantly utilizes familiar objects and places them in humorous and often larger-than-life contexts. In Eating a Banana, a self-portrait bleeds the lines between suggestion, comedy, and banality. “I just happened to be eating a banana and thought it might be good,” remembers Lucas, in a conversation shared by Ellegood for the exhibition. “It’s happened time and time again that some random, spur-of-the-moment idea or juxtaposition has proved more fruitful than laborious projects I may have been working on.” Moreover, Au Naturel, the piece after which the survey is named, presents an array of suggestive objects displayed reclining on a mattress and slumping against a wall. Composed of two oranges on either side of an upright cucumber along with a bucket resting below two grapefruits, the scene, humorously and figuratively, resembles a man and woman in bed. The piece toys with the mind’s association between objects and body parts, brazenly referencing the humorous persistence of sexual desire. The title alone is deliberate; “au naturel” refers not only to the mattress brand, but also the French phrase for “natural,” or, “in the nude.”
This theme spans back to traditional paintings which have sustained the male gaze with reclining female form, like Manet’s Olympia, or further back, Goya’s Maja Desnuda. Through commonly found materials, Lucas invites viewers to make connections pertaining to the complicated relationship between gender and power. As Lucas states, “Taboos are compelling. How we all collude in them, barely consciously.” Lucas brilliantly highlights these taboos, her expression may not be the easiest to digest for its erotic and irreverent nature, but she nevertheless encourages communication unapologetically, which, in most cases, might not occur otherwise. This results in a straightforward, no-nonsense process of erecting objects, bordering on the hyperreal, like the NUD series.
These fluffy and corpulent sculptures are uncanny for their resemblance of amorphous flesh. Lucas isn’t apprehensive to explore that which makes us squirm, which makes us double-think. The series were the result of Lucas and partner, Julian Simmons, rummaging in a shed in a garden in the country. Looking back, “...Julian came upon an old screwed-up bunny. We kept it around us for a bit.” Lucas recalls how the NUD series came into being all these later in the show. “Over the next days I set about making some similar objects from scratch. They happened very naturally, all different. Slightly lewd in their nakedness. We named them ‘cuddle friends,’ after ourselves. Something about their baby-like quality got me thinking about my relationship with my mum. That’s where ‘nuds’ came from. She called being naked “in the nuddy.”
One example of Lucas’ signature straightforwardness is Sod You Gits, a wall piece that appropriates tabloids from the ‘90s. Blowing them up to amplified proportions, Lucas speaks to the absurd, inappropriate and provocative nature of tabloid ingestion and celebrity-making. In Lucas’ display of the enlarged snippets, women strike their pose at a massive scale before the viewer and the included personal ads become public in the viewing space. The lack of privacy evokes self-consciousness in the viewer and dismantles how we’re meant to experience intimate classifieds.
While the survey of Lucas’ works dates back over thirty years, the internal themes are remarkably relevant. Current misogyny and recent laws overturning and eschewing Supreme Court precedents are visible and prevalent. Lucas’ work supplies a much-needed catalyst for action.
In light of this, Ellegood describes a piece, 1000 Eggs: For Women, as “quite a cathartic reclamation of feminine power.” This literal action painting might be one of the show’s most powerful for its participatory and interactive nature. The piece invites women, people who identify as women, and even men (albeit they have to dress in drag or “giant phalluses”) to throw 1,000 raw eggs at the gallery wall. This results in a residue that dries as a fresco on the wall. A muse sculpture is placed in front, bathing in the grotesque brilliance of the tempera-like “mural.” Lucas utilizes eggs in many of her pieces, referencing fertility and femininity. This piece was performed just after the aforementioned restrictive abortion laws, even in cases of rape or incest, that many southern states have passed.
Many women find their relationship with their body in a state of flux, constantly changing and adapting. These implications and complications lead to feelings of love, shame, mistrust, beauty and disgust—both internally and externally. With anger circulating through the political air regarding gender and power, it seems appropriate for femme-identifying folks to participate in the egg-throwing while imagining archaic and conservative politicians on the other end. Naturally, eggs as objects serve as symbolic gesture for reproduction. In 1000 Eggs: For Women, Lucas places the fate of the eggs exactly where it belongs: in the hands of women.
Ellegood reasons this work is never over. In Au Naturel, Lucas reasserts her position as the creator, directing our gaze to overtly sensualized forms. Whether demanding attention in the grotesque or tender, Lucas’ practice is a tantalizing game in adaption; she adapts that which is readily available for consumptionand forces us to see the absurdity in classic portrayals of female beauty. Despite the intuitive response of anger in terms to relentless practices of objectification present in life and art, Lucas is never centralized on resentment. As Ellegood explains the intent behind the installation process, “it isn’t what you say, but how you say it.”
The resulting Au Naturel, as Ellegood reflects, is “simple, yet smart.” It gives a celebratory voice to Lucas’ expansive practice, whose themes continue to invoke discussion. Lucas shocks and delights in her ability to exhibit a shared humanity, allowing for comfort in solidarity. We can’t wait to see how this conversation continues to manifest. The gallery is simply the beginning.