I saw this exhibition way back in November at the Whitechapel in London and wrote this sometime after. Better late than never though, right?
‘My stomach’s not strong enough for this now’, I heard one visitor say at Sarah Lucas: Situation Absolute Beach Man Rubble. Gathering work from throughout Lucas’ career, including a number of new pieces, Sarah Lucas: Situation confronts us with the queasy, gross absurdities of the body, and of sex.
Divided into three rooms, this exhibition pivots on the penis. Penises are everywhere: from tips peering out like eyeballs from ludicrous wallpaper, to an unctuous candy-pink sculpture rising from the floor like a melting ice-cream cone. Dan Flavin-style tubular lights not-so-subtly symbolise male genitalia as does a phallic blimp suspended overhead.
Initially, Lucas’ overwhelming use of phallic forms and graphic images of male genitalia seems like an obvious way in which to attack and ridicule masculinity, or as a cheap ploy for attention. For example, comically rhythmic masturbating mechanisms ostensibly mock the ‘easy-to-please’ stereotype of male sexuality. Surrounded by all these penises, Lucas’ vision may be accused of lacking poetic nuance, or of being heavy handed, even silly.
Yet, Lucas intends you to have a bit of a chuckle as you navigate her erotic playground. ‘For me, humour is often about turning anger around’, Lucas says of her work. Room 1 on the ground floor is about working through anger, specifically that located in the hyper-masculine moment of 1990s ‘Lad culture’ and red top bravado. On one wall, an enormous collage of smiley, big-busted Page Three girls, sensationalist tabloid headlines and football coverage magnify the ‘beer and boobs’ brand of masculinity present in Britain at this moment. In creating a gigantic wallpaper of tabloid tear-outs, Lucas defamiliarises the conventions of red top media, drawing our attention both to the Carry-On style kitsch hilarity of the lewd stories and equally, the daily dose of creepy misogyny as plastered on their pages.
The imagery and traits of masculinity are the subject of much of her early work. In a number of self-portraits, Lucas appropriates the conventions of masculinity; the most famous of which presents Lucas dressed in ripped straight leg jeans, a black t-shirt and sturdy workman boots, slouched on an armchair with legs outstretched. The comic insertion of two runny splats of fried eggs on her breasts disrupts her intimidating posture. Another portrait features Lucas as James Dean with a droopy cigarette dangling from her lips.
Penises galore occupy the upstairs galleries. The first room is a deliciously Baroque study of the naked male form. Here, man’s body rather than woman’s is objectified: cans of beer, raw meat, flowers, fruits and even the hilariously banal milk and biscuits are all suggestively placed before the penis parodying the treatment of the female body in art and in the media.
From the grand, bodily excesses of the previous room, the final gallery sees the penis cast in white plaster. Enormous, weighty sculptures represent the penis as artefact, as ‘man rubble’. The humour has evaporated and solidified into an unexpectedly stoic meditation on the state of masculinity in the twenty first century. Now, James Dean’s cigarettes compile a portrait of Trotsky and where previously nylon tights composed unnervingly corporeal forms, they have metamorphosed into gleaming bronze sculptures; the raw, meaty flexibility of the previous rooms has irrevocably changed.
And it is only then that we begin to understand the troubling complexities at the core of Lucas’ brash and bawdy work. For all its humour and confidence, Lucas’ vision quietly probes the difficult and disturbing question of what it means to be a man at this moment in time.
The blokey innocence of a few pints of Stella and the footie has vanished (in 2014 Page Three is even in jeopardy); what is left is the crumbling aftermath where headlines list stories of rape, paedophilia, suicide, war and car crashes on a daily basis. While Lucas does not blatantly reference any of these issues, they are there: in the crushed cars used as plinths, the khaki jacket and battered helmets in the piece Spamageddon (2004), and in the eerie sculpture of Richard the Lionheart bearing Jimmy Savile’s face.
In this case, Lucas’ mode is not one of condemnation necessarily, but of consideration and infiltration. The visceral ludicrousy of her work is punctuated with a dark inner core that positions the distressing truth of man-dom at its centre. Arguably, the shocking quality of her work is hinged on its unnervingly human and sensitive nature, as opposed to any damning criticism on her part.
Some days after viewing Lucas’ exhibition, I watched Alexander Payne’s latest film Nebraska. While coming from a completely different perspective, that of America’s Midwest – land of heroic cowboys – , Payne’s film, ironically captured in epic monochrome, presents the so-often bleak actuality of masculinity. As one female character says, ‘Things are hard for young men’.
Equally, for Lucas, the classic notion of masculinity, as great and strong, is now a myth. Commemorated in stony monuments, it is ancient history, leaving only the ugly reality of human nature to be excavated and examined.