‘You can either find what’s funny or choose to be offended’

Sarah Lucas has never taken the world at face value. The legendary British artist has long been alive to everyday interactions fraught with second meanings; the way the things we think of as ordinary can vibrate with a psychic charge. Her mother, who grew up in London’s East End, used to take the young Lucas to the city’s markets, freewheeling spaces that were once a microcosm of society. The experience rubbed off.

“There was a quality about it that was a bit funny and interesting,” Lucas says. “On one hand, you’re always watching your pockets in case someone takes something off you, but you’re suddenly exposed to outside lives. There’re angry drunks around and a hell of a lot of bad language.” She laughs wryly. “I think that element of humour and irony and double entendre did have an impact on me.”

These days, we vocalise our feelings. We loudly declare our politics as if earnestness itself is a form of moral absolution. Lucas, 58, doesn’t care for behaviours that have been socially sanctioned. She arrived in the art world in the late 1980s as part of the Young British Artists (YBAs), a group whose young, mostly working-class members included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Sarah Lucas (photographed in 2020) doesn’t care for behaviours that have been socially sanctioned.Credit:Julian Simmons

Since then, she’s burrowed deeper into our collective psyche. In her hands, unremarkable material – sidewalk furniture, supermarket fruit, old stockings – becomes the stuff of profoundly witty sculptures and installations. A cucumber and bucket arranged on a grimy mattress, a stand-in for sex in all its comic absurdity. A mishmash of thighs and legs and arms, fleshiness so convincing you can’t believe you’re looking at padding encased in nude hosiery, part of a series she calls Nuds, first shown in 2009.

The Bunny sculptures she’s been making since the 1990s: figures that loll and lounge and stretch, figures that recline on office chairs, limbs splayed. In August, her newer Bunnies will star in Project 1: Sarah Lucas, part of the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name, a yearlong gender equity initiative celebrating women artists. Unbelievably, it’s her first solo show in this country.

A seam of mischief: Eating a Banana 1 (1990) by Sarah Lucas.Credit:

Lucas’ work mines the messiness of inhabiting a human body. It’s easy to dismiss as too crass. A schoolboy joke. There’s a seam of mischief in her art, sure. Take her famous Self Portrait with Fried Eggs from 1996, in which she appears in a T-shirt and tattered jeans, fried eggs placed over her breasts. Or a highlight of the NGA show, Eating a Banana (1990), a floppy-haired Lucas wearing a leather jacket and gazing provocatively at the camera, which is held by the artist Gary Hume, her then-boyfriend.

“I was just trying to use myself,” she tells me. “I had an androgynous image from being a tomboy as a child.”

Lucas, at her most electric, shows the viewer how women are policed by prudishness and propriety. That what passes as “good manners” – in England, and here in Australia – can mask gendered hypocrisy, a darker misogyny that lurks in the culture.

“With Sarah’s work, you can either find what’s funny or choose to be offended,” says the show’s curator, Peter Johnson. “Equity between men and women is still a huge issue. You only have to look at things that have happened in Canberra. She’s trying to find the chinks in the armour, the schisms, slippages of power.”

‘She’s trying to find the chinks in the armour, the schisms, slippages of power.’

In 2007, Lucas moved to Suffolk, where she lives with her partner, artist Julian Simmons, in a home that once belonged to Benjamin Britten, the British composer. When I call, she’s forgotten her headphones. She likes to keep her hands free so she can roll cigarettes as she’s talking. She’s open and generous and it’s hard not to be charmed by her candour, rare for artists of her stature.

A stand-in for sex in all its comic absurdity: Au Natural sculpture by Sarah Lucas, 1999.Credit:Fairfax

This is on full display in About Sarah, a 2014 film shot in the year before Lucas represented Britain at the Venice Biennale with I Scream Daddio, for which she cast her female friends’ bottom halves in plaster. In the film, she flashes her gap-toothed smile, a sculpture wedged under her arm. She sips wine at her kitchen table, chatting breezily with Sadie Coles, her London gallerist.

She has always rejected the burden of professionalism.

“I was really quite adamant that I didn’t want to turn art into a business or a job,” she says. “That was exactly what I wanted to avoid in my life.”

Lucas was born in 1962 and grew up on a council estate near Holloway Road, in North London. Her father worked as a milkman, her mother a part-time gardener. She grew up poor. As a child, Lucas, the third of four siblings, was attuned to sensory experience.

“I [was] affected by texture on a nervous system level,” she says. “When I was six, I was going through the cupboard in the house, looking for a sort of raw material then realising that everything has been invented already.”

Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy by Sarah Lucas was shown at the Tate Britain in 2004.Credit:AP Photo/John D McHugh

Lucas dropped out of school at 16. She attended Working Men’s College, the London College of Printing and, later, Goldsmiths. There she studied alongside fellow artists Angus Fairhurst and Hume and Hirst, who famously staged Freeze, the fateful 1988 group show, held in a Docklands warehouse. Margaret Thatcher’s England was socially conservative. The show’s irreverent energy signalled a new vision for British culture.

“All those people have remained friends and we’ve continued to do things together,” she says. “[But] I had a moment with the Freeze show, being really disappointed with my own work.” A pause. “I started thinking, ‘Is this really enough?’”

Lucas, unlike some of her contemporaries, didn’t court celebrity. Instead, she started searching.

“After Freeze, I thought I’d go for more of an anti-style,” she says. “I started using very cheap materials, old crappy furniture, tabloid newspapers.”

Her first solo show was in 1991 at City Racing, a bare-bones storefront on Soho’s Kingly Street. In the same space, the following year, she showed the classic Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992). She arranged food synonymous with the late-night kebab shop, the East London greasy spoon, on a wooden table, cleverly evoking female anatomy.

Bunny sculpture bound for Canberra: Sarah Lucas’ Tittipussidad, 2018.Credit:Steve Russell Studios

“I never thought my audience would just be an art audience,” she says. “I was very aware of what people like me, people who I had grown up with, would think of it.”

The installation used working-class signifiers. But its critique of the way the patriarchy reduces women to the sum of their bodies applied just as powerfully to the female nude, imagined, through time, by great male painters.

Charles Saatchi bought the work. It paid for The Shop, a space Lucas opened with Emin in an old doctor’s surgery near Brick Lane in December 1992, where the pair sold handmade ash-trays, T-shirts emblazoned with rude slogans. There’s a picture of Lucas and Emin, outside The Shop, fresh-faced and denim-clad, making the peace sign, a female friendship that would go down in art history.

“We thought, let’s do it ourselves,” she smiles. “When you feel like doing something just because you feel like it, among people you like being with, it’s very liberating.”

‘I never thought my audience would just be an art audience. I was very aware of what people like me would think of it.’

A Sarah Lucas installation at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, in 2019.Credit: Xing Yu, Yang Li

Freedom, of course, is contingent on social forces. In the late 1990s, Lucas says, she found herself “living in a really rough situation”.

“I didn’t have any money, I had to walk everywhere,” she says. “There was this abject quality to life.”

More recent Bunnies have a greater sense of agency: Sarah Lucas’ Sugar, 2020.Credit:Robert Glowacki

She was reading psychoanalysis and the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. In 1997, she showed Bunny Gets Snookered with Sadie Coles, eight doll-like sculptures, made from tights and wood and wire, arranged around a snooker table. Snooker, here, symbolises the masculine domain. To get snookered is to be prevented from scoring, the way the patriarchy’s games are often rigged against women.

“I thought I was making something else,” she says. “I always feel the things [I make] have an awareness of being seen. But people bring in an awareness when they see it. They are touched by it on an unconscious level.”

These Bunnies were limp and post-coital. Gorgeous but tough to look at.

“[With] Bunny Gets Snookered, there’s this abject availability,” Johnson says.

He says her more recent Bunnies have found a greater sense of agency.

“There’s this sense that the Bunnies, over the course of the last 24 years, have reclaimed some of the power for themselves.”

A lot can change in 24 years. Project 1 will feature works like Oops! (2019), a high-heeled figure in grey-blue stockings; and Peeping Thomasina (2020), who wears Converse and arches backwards. These Bunnies are newly in thrall to their outfits, their bodies. Their taste is fancier. The chairs are now Eames, mid-century modern, less East London, more design magazine.

“I remember women’s libbers were burning bras and not wearing makeup,” she says. “Now you’ve got powerful women done up to the nines.”

Sarah Lucas’ Winter Song, 2020.Credit:Robert Glowacki

When she was younger, she worked fast. She liked materials that let her improvise. Post #MeToo the ideas about gender and power that Lucas has charted for three decades have calcified in the culture. The conversation is slowly moving beyond binaries. Another high point of the NGA show is the shiny and monumental Dick’ead (2018), a phallus and breasts cast in bronze.

Bronze is permanent, masculine. But for Lucas, art is a way to keep digging beyond first impressions.

“Art is supposed to question values,” she says. “It’s not just in the thing you made. It’s in turning material around, turning an idea on its head.”

Project 1: Sarah Lucas shows at the National Gallery of Australia until at least February 13, 2022.

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