I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.
Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).
It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.
My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?