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If you’re going to depict a woman bending over a toilet with a cigarette stuck up her anus, you should have a good reason. Unfortunately, a compelling motivation, aside from a loosely articulated impatience with gender discrimination, does not fully reveal itself in Sarah Lucas’ retrospective, Au Naturel, now on view at the Hammer Museum by way of the New Museum. Still, visitors excited to see the work of this grunge-era bad girl will encounter seven plaster casts of women’s cigarette-em bedded bodies, naked from the waist down, some splayed on a table (Michele, 2015), while others faint across refrigerators (Margot, 2015).
Lucas, who is associated with the Young British Artists (YBAs), became famous in the 1990s for works like Eating a Banana (1990) (a black and white photo of the artist moodily fruit munching) and Get Hold of This (1994) (two green rubber arms positioned in an obscene faggoussa gesture). In the 1990s, this female defiance went a long way in espousing Lucas’ disruptive brand of feminism, but today, it feels thin in its lack of a more specific critique.
Perhaps the most telling product of Lucas’ oeuvre is the title work, Au Naturel (1994): a slumped mattress littered with objects symbolizing female (two melons and a pail) and male (a cucumber and two oranges) anatomy. Unlike Tracey Emin’s coterminous My Bed (1998) (unmade, and littered with vodka bottles), Au Naturel doesn’t evoke deep feeling. The presence of a gritty bare mattress on the floor does convey a sense of emotional poverty, but its straightforward allusion to body parts lacks the emotional depth of Emin’s scorching document of loneliness.
Lucas’ work helps us understand how certain artistic gestures once loosened an ossified social structure without necessarily offering a way forward. In the 1980s and ’90s, Emin harnessed pathos to describe women’s conditions, and Adrian Piper reveled in raced and sexed confrontations in ways that still shed light on the current moment. For her part, Lucas didn’t muck around explicitly with the agonies of racism, rape, or the denial of reproductive freedoms. Rather, in her smoggy Smoking (1998), we see Lucas staring calmly at a ceiling while blowing smoke from her mouth, and in Self-Portrait #1, #3, and #5 (all 1993), she faces the viewer with wide-legged, IDGAF charisma. In the ’90s, her ability to unneurotically take up space was thrilling, but in the new millennium, the longstanding problems of white supremacy, class warfare, and sexual trauma make such efforts seem incomplete.
Lucas’ work raises the question of what we should expect of female artists who delve into themes of gender within their work—can’t they just wittily observe and disseminate? Lucas seems to argue for such a position with her refusal to lose control. And, in her use of humor and exhaustion, she does allow for a calmer conversation about politics than, say, Piper, who (brilliantly!) handed out cards to people that explained that she was rendered uncomfortable by their racist remarks. In the 1990s, Lucas’ refusal to agonize may have made viewers feel less accused by her work, allowing them to consume it without shutting down defensively. In this way, perhaps Lucas’ art belongs more in the company of Andrea Fraser’s bananas Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), which wrapped up gender critique in wisecracks.
The meaning of Lucas’ work dries up a lot faster than Fraser’s, however, because it doesn’t speak to the larger scope of human existence. Simply put, intersectional feminism’s emphasis on the connection between sex, class, race, sexuality, and disability, has taught us that we can’t just talk about gender anymore. Lucas makes herself the dominant subject of her photographs and installations, which also allows her to sidestep the calls to actions of her peers. Meanwhile, Fraser followed up Museum Highlights with installations like Down the River (2016), which filled the Whitney Museum with the ambient sounds of correctional facilities, thus bringing race into her circle of care. In works such as Self-Portrait With Fried Eggs (1996) (Lucas looking blasé while wearing eggs on her breasts), Lucas is confrontational but noncommittal towards any specific cause or sentiment, and so she remains hip without becoming shrieky and embarrassing. Yet today’s mix of cultural horrors— prevalent racism, classism, and sexism—don’t leave much room for skirting the issues.
It is unfair to judge work made in the 1990s according to the cultural standards of today, yet this retrospective, shown in two major cities this year, brings renewed attention to Lucas and the gender politic that she espoused, and begs the question, why now? In the ’90s, Lucas’ self-possessed, gentle jokes were groundbreaking and new, and her disruptive punk rock attitude felt thrilling in the face of overly sexed depictions of women in art and culture, but c. 2019, we desperately need feminist artists who admit that we’re in trouble. And that’s what we require this minute, a show in a powerful venue like the Hammer, which can devote money and space to work that expresses this time of anguish. In its straightforward way, Lucas’ work keeps its shit together, but what we need now is honest, raw art that feels unfettered and ready to fight—a more apt depiction of the dangerous and chaotic times that we live in.
Yxta Maya Murray is a law professor and writer living in Los Angeles. She received a 2018 Art Writers Grant. Advice and Consent, her one-act play about the Christine Blasey Ford hearings, has just been published by LARB Books.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 17.