Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel Gallery: disarming, amusing and crudely insincere

By Hannah Prime

Sarah Lucas, 'Nice Tits', 2001 (© Sadie Coles HQ, London)
Sarah Lucas, ‘Nice Tits’, 2001 (© Sadie Coles HQ, London)

Sarah Lucas: SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble
Until December 15 2013

There were more than a few wry smiles amidst fellow gallery-goers, wandering around Sarah Lucas’ ‘SITUATION: Absolute Beach Man Rubble’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Even a giggle here and there, as well as some grave expressions amongst pondering faces.

The work on display, I warn, may put you off your dinner. The art is abrasive, crude and raw– but its cynical and playful undertones soften this. The three rooms of the exhibition each have their own character, their own agenda. But they all focus on the human body, sexuality and gender, and how these are represented in everyday life and the media.

Lucas’ human bodies, whether male, female or androgynous, are all sexualised and objectified. It is striking, that the protagonist of the exhibition is Lucas herself– the only face to appear being hers– eyes largely staring at the onlooker in a defiant, bold manner.

Yet, in some of the portraits of Lucas on display, by artists Julian Simmons and Juergen Teller, Sarah’s gaze is expectant and demanding; in others, she appears nonchalant.

Whatever her mood, her strong presence voyeuristically overlooks proceedings. Her subjects however are faceless and nameless; the male nudes with everyday objects and foodstuffs held in front of their crotches are anonymous bodies. They are hairy, natural and imperfect, with milk bottles, sweet potatoes, pieces of raw meat and cans of Carling concealing their manhood. Lucas’s take on masculinity is at once disarming, amusing and crudely insincere.

The artist draws attention to everyday references to sexuality and how it is represented in the English language, the media and in general consciousness. Her representation of this, although comical at times, is not at all facetious. In our current age of airbrushed perfection, impossible expectations of beauty and sexiness, these very human images are somewhat refreshing. They argue that dicks and tits should be regarded as commonplace and everyday as vegetables.

On the other hand, the artworks are gleefully disgusting and crude– they’d make my grandma uncomfortable. They are irreverent, questioning and attack British squeamishness over the human body and sex in general. They also represent sexuality from a strong feminist perspective– and immediate animal desire.

In the first room of the exhibition, toilet basins squat dirtily alongside enormous phalluses, reminiscent of Duchamp’s Readymades. Stained mattresses and hunks of ham are overlooked by large blown up collages of nineties tabloid features, sex adverts and sex scandals.

Walnuts and a cigar are arranged as meat and two veg, perching on a loo seat. Different shapes and sizes of foreskin appear as ingredients of soup, blown up to huge proportions and covering a whole wall of the lower exhibition room. Fag ends dangle from lips, cans of spam act as plinths, fried eggs as breasts and strips of kebab sit limply on a table, representative of a vagina. A lot of it is pretty stomach turning.

Sarah Lucas, 'Au Naturel', 1994. (© Sadie Coles HQ, London)
Sarah Lucas, ‘Au Naturel’, 1994. (© Sadie Coles HQ, London)

Lucas’ series of ‘bunnies’ which were inspired from the Playboy Empire so dominant in the 1990’s, see cheap, nude coloured stuffed nylon tights arranged into an interpretation of the female form. She mocks male objectification of the faceless, nameless, female form by making these bunnies unattractive, abject. They are simply static stuffed tights, splayed legs sat limply on chairs. These bunnies look used, worn and tired, reflecting Lucas’ attitude to sexualised representations of women in society.

Sarah Lucas 'Bunny Gets Snookered #1', 1997.
Sarah Lucas ‘Bunny Gets Snookered #1’, 1997. (© Sadie Coles HQ, London)

In the last room at the top of Whitechapel gallery the winding twisting turning forms evolve into genderless and polymorphic bronze casts, altogether more glamorous and beautiful than the cheap, disposable everyday tights of her series of NUDS. These bronze casts rest on plinths made of breeze blocks, juxtaposing the industrial with the organic and natural. The same breeze blocks are used to make the furniture which frames this room and which visitors can sit on, allowing our bodies to be presented as artworks too.

There is nothing exclusive about Sarah Lucas’ art. Rather than rejecting the imperfect, she embraces it as not just a physical quality but a fundamental characteristic of human nature.

It would be possible to feel deflated after walking out of the exhibition, after seeing bodies likened to vegetables, chunks of meat and stuffed tights– there was nothing glamorous about it. But the way in which Lucas satirizes commonplace depictions of the human body– be it male or female– can actually be uplifting. Raw, crude, grim perhaps, but also thought provoking and direct.

Stop being so squeamish, Lucas seems to say. The human body is what it is, no matter how it is represented in everyday language–in the media, and in our fantasies. That hasn’t lost relevance since the 1990s, and I’m sure Lucas’ work will be just as crucial and immediate for years to come.

SITUATION: Absolute Beach Man Rubble at Whitechapel Art Gallery is the first retrospective of Sarah Lucas’ work. It is showing until December 15th 2013. Admission is free.

A version of this review first appeared on Queen of Nothing  and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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