Sarah Lucas: Rose Bush

Sadie Coles HQ, London 14 June – 8 September 2012

By J.J. Charlesworth

Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane opens with Kane, whispering the single word ‘rosebud’ before he dies. Hollywood legend says that this was bit of coded innuendo; Newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst, on which Kane was partly modelled, was rumoured to have nicknamed his mistress’s clitoris ‘rosebud’.

I have no idea whether this helps in thinking about Sarah Lucas’s third (of four) instalments of work in Sadie Coles’s project space – given over to Lucas for a year, concurrent with her big retrospective at the Henry Moore Institute. But then the wordplay of innuendo and lavatory humour are never far away in Lucas’s work, and with Rose Bush, the lavatorial becomes tangible – there are a lot of toilets in this show, see?

So in the show’s title piece (Rose Bush, 2012), cutout letters spelling ‘rose bush’ waver atop spindly wires that emerge out of a white toilet, hovering like a bad smell, as ghostly as Kane’s croaked whisper. It signifies prettiness while being dirty – flowers don’t grow where shit goes – but then the toilet bowl is a perfect device by which to signal the comic confusion of genital and anal orifices, and the slapstick battle of the sexes that Lucas never tires of restaging through verbal puns made flesh. Maggi (2012) has two lit lightbulbs hanging of a wooden skirt-hanger, a lopsided toilet bowl suspended below, and reprises Lucas’s play with two-boobs-and-a-fanny visual displacements, cheerfully nicked from Magritte.

Lucas’s slang repurposing of such avant-garde granddads as Duchamp and Magritte is still a winning formula, one in which vulgar materials get to play out, in sculpture, the vulgar analogies once reserved for women by men. Having said that, the presence of an earlier work (The Old in Out, 1998), a piss-coloured resin cast of a toilet back-illuminated by fluorescent tube, suggests that this line of Lucas’s work could go on merrily forever.

But while one half of Rose Bush is preoccupied with tits, cunts and arseholes, the other side of the show camps up monumental sculpture through a different take on femininity. Jubilee (2012) is a concrete cast of a pair of thigh-high, high-heeled platform boots, standing propped against each other, with a pinkish-red lightbulb hanging more or less at crotch-height above them. There’s a copy of this not far away (without lightbulb), while splashed across the back wall are billboard images of the boots, standing tall in an outdoorsy setting. Jubilee is both ridiculous and triumphant, a paralysed, knock-kneed abjection of a pole-dancer’s kinky boots, supple fetish object turned sagging, phallic sculpture.

Lucas’s potty-mouthed, gender-theorising art has always been more about revelling in the dismal humour of sexual objectification that in denouncing it. The artist remains androgynously outside, looking on sarcastically - a position made literal here by the wall-photograph of Lucas’s t-shirted torso, holes cut out just over the nipples, staring out at you. There’s no escape, even if Lucas’s recent forays into a more abstracted, primitivist sculptural form (the ‘NUDS’ works) suggests she might wish for an exit from the compulsive absurdities of everyday existence. But sculpture, in its currently sophisticated, decorative decline, tends to avoid the vulgarities of ordinary life, and Lucas is best when she’s stuffing it in your face. And, like a good wank, the experience might be futile, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth repeating. 

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue.