Museum  June 24, 2019  Jordan Riefe

Feminism, Fruit, and Phalluses: Sarah Lucas at the Hammer Museum

Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

If you plan to see Au Naturel, the current survey of Sarah Lucas at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, best leave your penis at home. The show has plenty to spare, whether it’s the feminist artist’s Penetralia pieces from 2008, a series of phallus-shaped sculptures made mainly from plaster and wood, or 2013’s Eros, featuring a nine-foot concrete appendage lying atop a compacted car (below). It makes an ideal complement to her Soap wallpaper (above) from 1989 featuring uncircumcised penis heads staring back at viewers like alien cyclopes.

“There’s something many people will perhaps find shocking about so many penises, but it also asks why do we think the human body is shocking, especially this part, and the disembodied fragments she presents,” says New Museum curator Margot Nelson, who, along with Anne Ellegood, has brought the show to the Hammer through September 1.

Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

Certainly, the art world is no stranger to nudity, but when asked why she only makes the penis and testicles, Lucas cheekily replies, “Why make the whole bloke?” Erotic symbolism plays heavily into her oeuvre, which often employs food or duplicates of the real thing, as well as the real thing smeared with egg yolk as in her 2015 video Egg Massage. In it her partner, Julian Simmons lies naked on a table and is rubbed with raw eggs.

“Some people say people are going to be shocked,” Lucas notes. “I have no idea what to expect from people here. So that's something I'm absolutely curious about. [New Museum Artistic Director] Massimiliano [Gioni] was really worried about that in New York. He thought we would get the Catholic Society really complaining. And I said to him, ‘They can fucking talk. All those pedophiles. They're going to bloody pipe up on it?’ I don't think they did, anyway.”

Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

The 1991 piece, Au Naturel, from which the show gets its name, consists of a mattress folded at a 90-degree angle with two oranges and a cucumber standing straight on one side, and on the other a bucket with two melons wedged into a tear in the mattress above. The title commonly refers to nude figures, traditionally women, usually painted by men. 

“In this work, Sarah conjures all of these associations about its being a couple. It’s also just a few objects on a mattress and a testament to how Sarah plays with these symbols and language and our preconceived notions that we bring to seeing an object and how society influences the way we view the body,” says Nelson. “Sarah harkens back to her feminist predecessors by challenging traditional notions of representation of the women’s body through the history of art. But does so in a way that allows multiple interpretations to emerge along with humor and play. 

Lucas has been shocking art lovers since her first show, Penis Nailed to a Board, at London’s City Racing gallery roughly 30 years ago. Based on a tabloid headline in which a cadre of consenting adults were arrested after police busted their S&M group, it uses the tabloid page as the cover to a box containing a board game using wooden blocks depicting each of the perpetrators. 

Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

In the 1990s, toilet bowls were the basis for works like Inferno, borrowing a page from Marcel Duchamp's’ scandalous 1917 readymade, Fountain. With Nature Abhors a Vacuum, she coats a toilet with a cigarette skin, a motif she used frequently on subsequent works like Is Suicide Genetic? (1996), and Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy (2003), a life-sized crucifixion. 

Her bunnies are a perverse variation on Playboy bunnies, nylon-stocking figures stuffed with kapok fibers and slouching in chairs, or around a billiards table as in Bunny Gets Snookered (1997). Her “Muses” are the opposite, plaster casts of girlfriends from the waist down, often bent over with a cigarette protruding from their posteriors. Out of the bunnies grew NUDS, not nudes, but expressionist variations, amorphously twisted nylon figures filled with fluff, abstracts sometimes finished in bronze. 

Food symbolizing genitalia, tabloid objectification and penises (without the bloke), three elements that have come to identify Lucas’ work, are present throughout the show, but it’s defined by the female gaze. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls asked, “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?” followed by statistics reading “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Arts Section are women, but 85% of the nudes are women.” And while those numbers may have improved over time, parity remains out of grasp. Lucas, with her unapologetic objectification of men, can be seen as a corrective. 

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1
Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1
Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1
jordan riefe

Installation view, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, at the Hammer Museum through September 1

“I was in Yorkshire at the height of the #MeToo movement and now the abortion thing. In a way, it's been a handle for people to sort of relate to what I'm doing. In a way it's a gift for me, not that I want to profit off such terrible stuff,” Lucas says about the show coinciding with the revived abortion debate as numerous red states attempt to reverse Roe v. Wade. “Things that take centuries to arrive at just sort of being pissed away is a terrible feeling, isn't it? It's a terrible disappointment cause it isn't what you hoped you were doing. It does make you feel a bit bloody impotent, doesn’t it?”

Weeks before the show opened, friends and guests arrived to help complete an ephemeral piece entitled, A Thousand Eggs for Women. Under Lucas’ supervision anyone who identified as a woman, or men who wanted to dress up as women or come as giant phalluses, were invited to throw 1,000 eggs at a wall in the gallery. 

“Women having control of their own bodies is very important to this piece. And collectively throwing these eggs felt like an incredibly cathartic act,” says Hammer curator Anne Ellegood. “And the sound, this constant sound of cracking and the feeling of throwing these eggs against the wall felt great.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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