Sarah Lucas is usually typecast as a bawdy provocateur who makes great art by chance. But in "No Excuses," an essay written for Lucas's current New Museum survey, Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts and Bluets among others, shows us how that misogynistic stereotype masks Lucas's brilliant and decades-long art career. We've excerpted the essay below; a full version is available in Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel, which was recently published by Phaidon.
I first saw Sarah Lucas’s work in the 1999 exhibition “Sensastion” at the Brooklyn Museum. I was twenty-six old. Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili were making the headlines in coverage of the Giuliani-targeted survey of the Young British Artists, but it was Lucas’s work that hit and lodged. I didn’t need or want to hear interpretations of Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992). I got it, or at least I felt I got it, which was enough. It was a wink, a portal, a stab of recognition from across the pond. “I live with remarks like that all my life,” Lucas said about Two Fried Eggs. “And I think, ‘Well yeah, I can make that same kind of remark just like you can, and I make it look fucking good in the bargain.'” Note that she isn’t tossing the language back to say––or solely to say––“What a gross phrase, which offends and degrades me.” She’s saying, “You think you’re foul? I’ll give you foul, plus a funny, multivalent, good-looking piece of art to boot.”
Most of my peers and idols at the time––from Tribe 8 to DANCENOISE to Lydia Lunch to Annie Sprinkle to Bikini Kill to Free Kitten and more––were doing something similar. And while I didn’t know then about Lucas’s shop with Tracey Emin, where they sold their “I’m so fucky,” “She’s kebab,” and “Complete arsehole” T-shirts, ostentatiously making art and partying with kin and strangers until the shop’s closing in 1993, I recognize it now as part of an international network of punk, DIY, women-artist-run spaces fueled by experiment, brazenness, pleasure, and humor––the likes of which we needed then, and frankly could use more of now.
I’m starting with “Sensation” not to rehash the tiresome narrative that dogs nearly every journalistic account of Lucas, which consists mostly of variations on the theme of “Brashest angriest baddest drunkest most in-your-face-girl of the YBAs goes to make many-decade career of totally amazing, probing art––who would have thought?” I’m doing so mostly to note that, to many of us, this narrative sounds like the same willfully ignorant and constricted tune that typically greets female artists with as much raw power and capacity as Lucas has.
For her part, Lucas has admirably parried this narrative for years, with sage, patient responses; “I don’t know if the work is as ‘fuck off’ as people seem to take it”; “I always think it’s a bit funny, when you see all the shocking things in the world, endless women getting tortured and murdered. You think: why the hell would anyone be shocked by a cigarette in somebody’s bum?”; etc." In one of my favorite moments, she turns the tables on a male interviewer who has characterized her work as “pessimistic”: “Let me ask you something,” she says. “Could it be that my sculptures make you feel pessimistic because you’re a man? Do you feel them to be directed at you personally? What kind of man would you say you are?” When the interviewer says he thinks of himself more as a person than as a man (sigh) and asks Lucas what kind of woman she thinks she is, she offers: “I’m a kindly, maternal even––though I don’t have children––middle-aged woman; still quite childlike, with a brutal edge that pops out sometimes, often in the form of a rather masculine sense of humor. I’m optimistic by nature and can generally find something worthwhile in pretty grim situations––or at least brighten them up.” Would that we all could summon as much lucid self-insight, or have Lucas’s capacity for brightening up the grim (the uncompromising, allover yellow of her exhibition “I SCREAM DADDIO” for the British Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale immediately leaps to mind.)
Lucas has long been curious about the alchemical properties of reclamation and détournement, especially in regard to gender. “I quite like insinuating myself into blokiness, definitely,” she says. “That’s why I would say something spurious, like, ‘I’m a better bloke than most blokes.’ But it adds so much to the work I do that I’m a woman doing it. And that fascinates me, why it should be much more powerful because I’m gender-bending, in a way. But it is.” It is, indeed––but as her word “fascinates” suggests, this “gender-bending” exceeds any singular interpretation. It has no fixed tone. It opens up questions, piece by piece.
No one has really figured out the workings of reclamation/détournement/appropriation, because there is nothing once and for all to figure out. There is a kind of churning, a field of play, and Lucas is all over it, splattering with questions: “Is smoking masculine? It used to be, but then so did the vote. Is a cigarette masculine? It stands for, in for, something. A nipple? A penis? Is a cigar a way of saying, my mother’s nipple is bigger than your mother’s nipple?” Like William Pope.L, who has since 2000 been distributing flyers reading “THIS IS FROM A PAINTING OF MARTIN LUTHER KING’S PENIS FROM INSIDE MY MOTHER’S VAGINA,” Lucas is expert at getting us to “look at [the] body in a way we’re not used to” (Pope.L’s stated aim re: King’s body). Also, like Pope.L, Lucas is an ideas person. But her fidelity to shape and material trumps intellectual dogma, including feminist creed. This orientation allows her, among other things, an unbridled formal exploration of dicks. “As it turns out, a dick with two balls is a really convenient object. You can make it and it’s already whole. It can already stand up and do all those things that you’d expect a sculpture to do.”
It’s a truism that all art (or all good art) somehow transforms the ordinary. But not all art (not even all good art) makes ordinary things feel magic. I don’t know exactly what Lucas means when she says she makes dicks in part “for religious reasons having to do with the spark,” but I do know that she is uniquely attuned to that spark. It’s not something one can really describe or explain, nor is it something shared by all sculptors. It’s a capacity to work with fairly plain materials until they shimmer into something uncanny and precise, akin to a summoning fetish. “Well that’s it really,” Lucas says when asked how she knows a piece is finished. “It jumps to life. Becomes more than the sum of its parts. Has a character. Is something seen for the first time.” A retrospective allows us to watch Lucas hunt for this zest, this “something seen for the first time,” over a number of years, across a number of mediums: chairs, mattresses, toilets, photographs, resin, rubber, nylons, wax, cigarettes, plaster, concrete, bronze, eggs, and more.
Of aging, Lucas has said: “When you are younger, everything has potential––people you might meet, the world, things that will be in your life. What does start to weigh you down, as you get older, is a lack of potential. Potential is diminishing all the time.” When I was younger, I would have rejected such a pronouncement as wrong and sad. I would have felt sad for those blinkered adults who saw winnowing potential everywhere. Now I think Lucas is describing a pretty straightforward neurological and emotional challenge that typically attends the condition of having lived on the planet for over four decades. But just because potential may be diminishing, you don’t quit looking for it. The hunt deepens, complicates, sends one to roam. I watch a little video online of Lucas buying eggs at a farmer’s market––she needs one hundred, no, two hundred––and I can see her, feel her, hunting.
She’s also desiring. She wants those eggs, she wants that yellow. She wants to throw the eggs, to watch others throw them, she wants to watch them drip. In a little essay called "Classic Pervery," Lucas differentiates something she calls the 'the ordinary perv' from ‘the classic perve.’ The former goes in for "pornography of the tabloid type, or a celebrity, or gratuitous violence”; the latter “is more likely to be rubbing his hands down his jumper, enjoying the soft nap of the wool and at the same time considering putting the kettle on for tea to go with his orange syrup cake.” Needless to say, Lucas is a “classic perve.” “Why else,” she writes, “would an artist spend six months, or years, carving, from life, and scaled up to rather large proportions, a plum that looks like a bum? Why would someone knit or crochet only the neck of a roll-neck jumper and call it a ‘Hot Neck'?” Why else, indeed?
These days we are surrounded by, sometimes drowning in, discourse about "consent." Given the pathetic state of affairs we continue to suffer under patriarchy, this makes sense. But the conversation leaves vast plains of pervery and desire totally untouched. Political philosopher Wendy Brown explains it: “If, in rape law, men are seen to do sex while women consent to it, the measure of rape is not whether a woman sought or desired sex but whether or not she acceded or refused it when it was pressed upon her, then consent operates both as a sign of subordination and a means of legitimation. Consent is thus a response to power––it adds or withdraws legitimacy––but it is not a mode of enacting or sharing in power."
One thing is for certain: Lucas’s work enacts and shares in power. “Power. The word keeps coming up,” Olivia Laing wrote in a 2015 profile. “Lucas is aware that she possesses it herself, both as an artist and as a person.” Perhaps this is what Lucas means when she says she believes in “beyond feminism.” Not that feminism didn’t or doesn’t have to do with power. But it’s easy to slip into presuming that power is only out there, something to be wielded against you, something on the horizon to struggle dourly towards. How to be alive––and even more alive––to the power we already have? How to make good and pervy use of it, how not to let it turn against you?
I’m reminded of Carolee Schneemann, another artist known for her generative, pleasurable enmneshments with men, not to mention for using their genitals to make art. Describing the heterosexual relations she and her peers forged in the 1960s, Schneeman writes, "We were young women taking tremendous freedoms, maintaining self-definition and an erotic confidence in choosing partners spontaneously in the firm expectation of great times to be won together." Doubtless this was––is––easier said than done. But after hearing so many young women in these #MeToo days recount stories of contemptible sex, zeroed desire, and feelings of powerlessness, it seems especially critical to make space for not just the expectation, but also the lived reality of what Schneemann here describes. Lucas lives it, too. Whether she’s shoveling mud in the Suffolk countryside, smiling at [boyfriend] Julian Simmons while wiping herself on the toilet in Mexico with one of her nylon sculptures draped around her neck, or directing a group of women to throw one thousand eggs at a gallery wall in Berlin, she sure seems like she’s having a great time (and making it look fucking good in the bargain).
No doubt this time is marbled with loss, grimness, hangovers, and “brutal edges.” (Who can easily forget the chill of a piece like 1996’s Is Suicide Genetic?, in which those words appear in brown graffiti on a scuzzy toilet bowl, as if a last cry for help as their author circles the drain?) But it’s also visibly rich with wit, fearlessness, labor, and laughter (not to mention wet with plaster, yolk, mud, and butter.) “I don’t want to be scared of anything,” Lucas has said. “I hate excuses. Loathe excuses. I don’t want to make them, I don’t want to listen to them, I don’t want to live one.” I don’t need a T-shirt for that. I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life.