Tak­ing all the fun out of be­ing naughty

In the first U.S. sur­vey of Sarah Lu­cas’s work, her ef­forts to be provoca­tive don’t add up to much

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT

NEW YORK — In a 1990 video, artist Sarah Lu­cas sits at a small ta­ble in a gar­den and eats a ba­nana and a sausage, both of them phal­lic sym­bols, with the ob­vi­ous in­tent that she is do­ing some­thing sly and naughty. At one point, in the mid­dle of this ado­les­cent provo­ca­tion, she looks up at the cam­era, thus en­gag­ing the viewer, and gives a tiny lit­tle smile. If you find that smile charm­ing, then you will prob­a­bly find Lu­cas’s work ev­ery­thing that her fans have said of it: bold, raw, crude and funny. If the smile doesn’t com­pen­sate for the ba­nal­ity and poverty of the rest of the video, much of her work will seem equally in­suf­fer­able.

Lu­cas, 56, rose up as part of a loosely de­fined co­hort of cre­ators known as the Young Bri­tish Artists, who were of­ten shown to­gether in in­flu­en­tial Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tions be­gin­ning in the late 1980s. Like some in the group, the English artist has ac­cen­tu­ated her work­ing-class af­fil­i­a­tions, and, like oth­ers, she has a taste for the crude, sex­ual and scat­o­log­i­cal. One of her most im­por­tant early works, seen in an ex­hi­bi­tion at the New Mu­seum, is called “Pe­nis Nailed to a Board,” a 1991 col­lage us­ing tabloid cov­er­age of a scan­dal in­volv­ing men who met for sado­masochis­tic sex. An­other piece in this first U.S. sur­vey of the artist’s work in­cludes lists of words scrawled on pa­per, many un­print­able, oth­ers in­sults of­ten hurled at gay and les­bian peo­ple. An­other early piece fea­tures a chair with a pe­nis at­tached to the seat.

She has said that, both in her sense of self and in the work she makes, she is “blokey,” which seems to mean she is fo­cused on sex­u­al­ity, and es­pe­cially male gen­i­talia, in a locker-room sort of way, along with a love of bod­ily flu­ids, toi­lets, cig­a­rettes and bath­room stall graf­fiti. There is, ap­par­ently, a fem­i­nist com­po­nent to this, as though the artist

rem­edy cen­turies of artis­tic ex­ploita­tion of women by sub­sti­tut­ing a manic re­it­er­a­tion of the pe­nis as sub­ject mat­ter. But the work is cu­ri­ously empty, and the re­sponse it elic­its doesn’t even have the plea­sure of scan­dal, at least not af­ter the first few penises, or the cast lower-body forms smok­ing cig­a­rettes from the anus, or the wall cov­ered in des­ic­cated raw eggs, or the Je­sus fig­ure plas­tered with cig­a­rettes.

Lu­cas’s work has as­cended in the art world, not through any­thing par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing or sub­stan­tial in it­self, but be­cause it em­pow­ers a dis­course that makes her an ap­peal­ing fig­ure to some crit­ics, gal­lerists and col­lec­tors. She is au­then­tic, she is “ballsy,” she is dar­ing.

“The sense of strength ra­di­at­ing from Lu­cas’s of­ten-dead­pan ap­proach and her in­sis­tence on de­pict­ing the cor­po­ral­ity and in- evitable flaws of the hu­man form in ways that some view­ers may find dis­con­cert­ing do not over­shadow the gen­uine vul­ner­a­bil­ity in her work,” reads a sen­tence from one of the cat­a­logue es­says. And so it seems she has po­si­tioned her­self in a pre­cise and pro­duc­tive place: as the artist who makes work that needs pro­tect­ing be­cause it causes scan­dal or gives of­fense.

Some artists need pro­tect­ing from time to time, when they stray into dif­fi­cult or fraught sub­ject mat­ter. But Lu­cas has cre­ated a body of work that is de­signed from be­gin­ning to end to fit the cat­e­gory of art that must be de­fended from bour­geois or mas­cu­line re­pres­sion. Crit­ics might write about how this work “in­ter­ro­gates” sex­u­al­ity or class, but, in fact, it does noth­ing of the sort. It ex­ists sim­ply to prove once again that some peo­ple will find some things of­fen­sive, and when it has sparked that reacmight it has suc­ceeded on the nar­row terms of its pur­pose and in­ten­tion. This cat­e­gory is so con­stricted, it must be dif­fi­cult to keep mak­ing art to fill it, es­pe­cially given all the com­pe­ti­tion and the nat­u­ral in­fla­tion­ary cy­cle when it comes to find­ing im­ages and ideas that will pro­voke an au­di­ence that isn’t jaded, just bored.

In an­other video, “Egg Mas­sage,” made in 2015, the artist’s com­pan­ion Ju­lian Sim­mons is seen ly­ing naked on a ta­ble while eggs are bro­ken and drooled onto him. They pool onto his body and around it on the ta­ble, while a pho­tog­ra­pher moves in and out to cap­ture the rit­ual. Again, one waits for the sub­stance of work, some­thing that will bring this lit­tle drama to a cri­sis, in­fuse it with mean­ing or di­rect our thoughts to some deeper con­tent. But the only thing that is of in­ter­est is the pho­tog­ra­pher, who isn’t re­ally nec­es­sary be­cause there is al­ready some­one else film­ing the artist slather­ing her part­ner with eggs. In­stead, the pho­tog­ra­pher’s pres­ence is meant to ac­cen­tu­ate the role of voyeur, and ex­ploiter of the man who is now cov­ered with eggs.

Af­ter all of Lu­cas’s provo­ca­tions, this is one of the few things that is truly dis­turb­ing, be­cause it sug­gests the hol­low­ness of the pu­ta­tive cri­tique im­plied in her work. The goal isn’t to undo old forms of ex­ploita­tion or tra­di­tional gen­der ideas; rather, it is sim­ply to in­vert them. She posits not equal­ity of the sexes nor a world be­yond gen­der cat­e­gories. In­stead, she ar­gues that hu­mil­i­at­ing a man is some­how re­demp­tion, tive, as though the point is sim­ply to ex­change the cat­e­gories of vic­tim and vic­tim­ized, not elim­i­nate the vic­tim­iza­tion.

That’s not a rev­o­lu­tion, it’s re­venge. But it’s typ­i­cal of much of Lu­cas’s work, which lacks a vi­sion of the world be­yond a work­ing-class woman’s pe­cu­liar ap­pro­pri­a­tion of blokey-ness.

Per­haps all of this was fun­nier 30 years ago. To­day, it just seems like a waste of en­er­gies that might ac­tu­ally have moved the world for­ward.

SARAH LU­CAS/COUR­TESY OF SADIE COLES HQ

SARAH LU­CAS/COUR­TESY OF SADIE COLES HQ philip.kennicott@wash­post.com

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Sarah Lu­cas, “Self­Por­trait With Fried Eggs,” 1996.Sarah Lu­cas: Au Na­turel is on view at the New Mu­seum in New York through Jan. 20.

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