What You Should Know About Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale this May. What should you know about her, and why should you care about her work?

First off, Lucas emerged in the late 1980s as part of a group dubbed (retrospectively) the Young British Artists. The YBAs—as they were commonly referred to—were an informal group of artists who, in many respects, were responsible for revamping the British art scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. Most artists associated with the label—such as Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Chris Ofili, and Tracey Emin—are still referred to as YBAs, and many art historians and art critics consider them to have constituted the last major art movement.

Lucas was one of the original YBAs. She was part of the 1988 exhibition “Freeze,” organized by Hirst, which featured students from Goldsmiths College and was arguably responsible for introducing the movement. Hirst has called Lucas “the greatest artist I know.”

Lucas creates sculptures that use everyday objects—such as old furniture, food, tights, and cigarette butts—to foreground uncomfortable truths about sex, gender, and death. Some of her most well-known works are the sculptures Au Naturel (1994) and Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992). Au Naturel suggests two nude figures (and possibly a sexual encounter) through the presentation—on an old mattress pulled up against a wall like a couch—of a metal bucket and melons on one side, and oranges and a stiffly erect cucumber on the other. Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab is just that, arranged on a table in an uneven triangle, clearly embodying the female genitalia. (See her create the work—and watch Hirst talk about it—here.)

Both Au Naturel and Two Fried Eggs crudely present the sexual organs in less-than-glamorous ways: the vagina, in particular, is either a tipped-over pail or a densely packed pocket of meat. Lucas’s presentation is humorously tongue-in-cheek, but also dark—and it’s unclear whether such anthropomorphism is an attack on the societal characterization of the female body (as consumable, or simply as a receptacle where men make their deposits) or a more personal reflection on the artist’s own body and sexual experiences.

Lucas is also known for (and recognizable from) her 1990s self-portraits, primarily Eating a Banana (1990) and Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996). Both are less ambiguous about sex or the female body than her sculptures. In Fried Eggs, Lucas appears before us, reclining in a chair and wearing ripped blue jeans and a worn black t-shirt. Two fried eggs lie on her breasts as she stares aggressively at the camera, an ashtray and pack of cigarettes at her feet. She embodies the artist in a state of reprieve, wearing a comedic form of the female body; but she is tough, refusing to submit to any gaze, male or otherwise. Eating a Banana is less confrontational but functions in the same way as Two Eggs. Playing on the popular image of a woman eating a banana, an innuendo to fellatio, Lucas (donning a leather jacket and looking straight back at the viewer) seeks to deflate the comparisons to a sexual act through her confrontation with the viewer.  

Lucas’s recent works still relate to the body, but their allusions are generally more subtle and more engaged with art history. This transition can clearly be seen in her treatment of pantyhose between her earlier “Bunny” series and more recent “NUDS” series (the latter have been beautifully documented by Lucas’s partner and longtime collaborator, Julian Simmons). While the “Bunny” works (such as Bunny Gets Snookered (1997)) immediately suggest the female body or sex, “NUDS,” while suggesting legs and breasts, are more abstract, and recall the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore.

Two of Lucas’s very recent works, her Eros and Priapus sculptures (both 2013), are among her best but are by no means subtle. Monumental objects halfway between a penis and a banana balance on crushed cars. These have strong art-historical connections, most immediately to the work of John Chamberlain or Alberto Giacometti—specifically to his Disagreeable Object  (1931). The work also brings to mind Lynda Benglis’s infamous double-dildo self-portrait in a 1974 issue of Artforum, due to the way it seeks to upend the monumental (read: masculine) art object through the use of a large penis.

While it’s not clear yet what Lucas will present in Venice, she will almost definitely, in the words of British Council director Andrea Rose, “prick convention” and be “impolite.” Rose explains: “Like zest in the artworld mix, her work will bring wit and savor to the Biennale.”

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