Art that makes the ordinary extraordinary

Penetralia by Sarah Lucas
Penetralia by Sarah Lucas
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Sculptor Sarah Lucas’s work has often been sensationalised. Her new show at The Henry Moore Institute attempts to redress the balance. Sheena Hastings reports.

SARAH Lucas is surrounded by admirers. More than 50 friends, fellow artists and gallery owners have descended on Leeds from London and all points of the compass to celebrate Ordinary Things, her first one-woman show in seven years.

They’ve had a hearty lunch and now the early evening champagne and canapes 
are flowing.  The room 
can barely contain the excitement.

At the centre of the throng is a small and girlish 50-year-old in combat print jeans 
and Liberty print shirt. She seems to be basking in the moment and buzzes from group to group.

 In the adjacent galleries at the Henry Moore Institute are 31 pieces from a body of work which has, at times, scandalised certain commentators. Since she left Goldsmiths College in 1987 you could definitely say Lucas’s work has made a noise.

For a good number of years Lucas partied as hard as the rest. But, where others of her generation – Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst come to mind – spent a great deal of time talking about their talent, Lucas, once a wild child who with Emin ran a shop in London where they made and sold t-shirts and memorabilia emblazoned with penises, has increasingly shied away from self-exposure.

She rarely gives interviews, and when she does her answers can be enigmatic and oblique. Even though her manner is warm there’s a kind of smiling reticence about her.

While Emin and Hirst ploughed very different furrows, Lucas left her native urban environment and has spent the last few years holed up with her partner, the artist Julian Simmons, in Benjamin Britten’s old farmhouse near Aldeborough in Suffolk.

For one whose most famous work is so urban – kebabs, fried eggs and public toilets have been some of the everyday objects she has used to explore ideas around gender and sexual politics – her life lately has been calm, rural, and as likely to be influenced by found objects such as driftwood from the beach as dirty loos, casts of male genitalia or her trademark furniture and stuffed tights.

People who are perhaps easily provoked took offence at Au Naturel (1994), a mattress retrieved from a skip and decorated with a ‘man and woman’ represented by melons and a bucket for the female and a cucumber and oranges as the male.

 They blanched at the apparent submissiveness of Lucas’s Suffolk Bunny, a pair of stuffed tights with bright pink stockings on top clamped to a chair. While Lucas says “there’s a lot of content” in her work, she leaves you to draw your own conclusions about whether her ‘bunnies’ are sad and sexually downtrodden or in fact amazons playing games where they’re very much in control.

Au Naturel does, in the flesh, have a sad and touching pathos about it – the bed acting as a cradle for the decay of human flesh.

Lucas says she stopped reading what the papers had to say about her work years ago, only referencing mainstream criticism fleetingly with: “...In the past it (the work) has not been talked about much in terms of its content and ideas, although there are a lot of ideas in it.

“I came to Leeds because I really liked Lisa (Le Feuvre, head of sculpture studies at The HMI, who curates this show). She had a strong idea about what it should be – saying the work should be considered in terms of the sculptural tradition. Lisa placed most of the pieces, and I just moved the odd thing to make it less ‘polite’.”

Le Feuvre confirms that she felt it was time to take a look 
at Lucas’s contribution 
to British art. “In the past there’s been a lot of talk about the ‘rude and shocking’ angles, but her work is absolutely rooted in sculptural tradition and very much part of the legacy of Henry Moore. “She uses very ordinary objects or makes casts of them, to relate human physicality, making pieces by moulding, stuffing, assembling. I think she really is Moore’s natural heir.”

With NUDS (2009-2010) Lucas again uses wool stuffed tights configured into curled limbs that are at once viscerally disturbing, as though observing human intestines, while at the same time creating seven creatures with a secretive inner world. They are certain echoes of Moore’s reclining figures here.

Does Lucas feel that this show represents a coming of age for her work?

“In a sense, yes.  I don’t have an industry around me and dozens of minions working for me. I make it all myself, I’m very hands on. I love the fact that even really good friends who think they know my work have said that this show is making them see it in a fresh light.”

Is it ever difficult to stay true to instincts and ignore what what sells most easily?

“It’s a lot like love or friend relationships. I go off it and say I’ll never do it again (for weeks or even months), but then I’ve always done it, always made things, and find myself tinkering with it again. An idea comes into my head and I’m off, once I feel enough stimulation. I like a lot of stimulation.”

 Lucas says that following her own passions in her art, regardless of which way the trends blow, is very much her mission. Retrospect can also change her view of the work.

“I always strive to make my work objective, not autobiographical in the way others do. But sometimes I look at it and I can see something of what I was feeling and experiencing when I made it, maybe a vulnerability. I can see it in the choice of materials. I can see that it’s maybe more personal than I realised at the time.”

 “Given the kind of enterprise I am, I am very pleased, proud and amazed to still be a key figure in British art.”

Sarah Lucas Ordinary Things is at The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until October 21. Info: 0113 246 7467 

Artistic vision

Born in London, in 1962 Lucas studied at the Workingmen’s College, London College of Printing and Goldsmiths College, where she graduated in Fine Art in 1987.

She was included in the 1988 exhibition Freeze, along with contemporaries Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst and Gary Hume.

Her first two solo exhibitions in 1992 were entitled The Whole Joke and Penis Nailed to a Board. It was in in the early 1990s that Lucas began using furniture as a substitute for the human body. Through her career, Lucas has continued to appropriate everyday materials to make works that use humour, visual puns and metaphors for sex, death, Englishness and gender.