In Lucas’s work – on show in Happy Gas at Tate Britain, London – a cigar is never just a cigar
You’re all tossers. This, charmingly, is how Sarah Lucas greets visitors to her exhibition Happy Gas, which begins with Wanker (1999), a sculpture featuring a mechanically pumping resin hand gripping an invisible cock. Maybe her salutation is sincere. Since the late 1980s, the British artist has delighted in pointing out that humans are inescapably corporeal beings, beholden to our bodies’ often ignoble appetites, compulsions and limits: we masturbate, we poison ourselves with cigarettes and processed foods, we piss and we shit, and in the end we die. For Lucas, this is a source not only of humour, but also pathos, politics and a precious kind of freedom, in which staring down taboos liberates us from shame.
While casual visitors might mistake Happy Gas for a retrospective, it’s no exhaustive survey of Lucas’s oeuvre. Strikingly, the show places little emphasis on the key role she played, alongside peers such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, in the YBA (Young British Artist) phenomenon of the 1990s. Indeed, the absence here of two of her most iconic assemblages, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992) and Au Naturel (1994), might be read as an attempt to detach her from that (currently wildly unfashionable) cultural moment. What we get instead is a tight selection of mostly lesser-known historical pieces, and a lot of sculpture of more recent vintage. Among the former, standouts include the persuasively nasty Inferno (2000), a grimy porcelain toilet with a red lightbulb glowing hellishly in its depths. On the toilet’s seat perches a wrinkly pair of walnuts, topped with a part-smoked cheroot. In Lucas’s work, a cigar is never just a cigar.
The Old Couple (1992) is even more viscerally unpleasant. Here, the seats of two wooden chairs are fitted with, respectively, a wax dildo and a set of yellowing false teeth, these last forming a vagina dentata. On one level, the work is indebted to the feminist thinker Andrea Dworkin’s reflections on the vulnerability of the penis during vaginal sex, but Lucas’s title gives things a delicious twist. Has the male half of The Old Couple, presumably in this relationship for many years, endured decades of dangerously toothy sex? Looking at his firm member (erectile dysfunction is no problem for this ageing trouper), he seems ready for another bout. Perhaps it’s their kink.
Items of furniture that cleave intimately to the human body, chairs are a running theme. The show’s largest room – wallpapered with images of a punkish young Lucas eating a half-peeled banana (Eating a Banana, 1990), an act that recalls both fellatio and cunnilingus – is given over to a parade of recent sculptures, in which humanoid forms variously lounge, cavort and wrap themselves around seating of different designs. There’s a visual echo, here, of the mismatched furnishings in Martin Kippenberger’s extraordinary installation The Happy End of Franz’s Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ (1994), although Lucas’s hall of chairs, while handsomely sequenced, doesn’t really exceed the sum of its parts. The most successful sculpture here is Fat Doris (2023), a stuffed-pantyhose figure slumped defeatedly on a dusty, granny-ish recliner. Less good is Sex Bomb (2022), a pert bronze nude bent bum-up over a stylish midcentury chair. The artist is better suited to grubby comic realism than (collector?) titillating fantasy.
The size of a double mattress, and containing a puck of terrible, unidentifiable meat, Lucas’s deathly pale Jesmonite Sandwich (2004–20) looks like a shortcut to the cemetery. Intimations of mortality also linger over This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018), a car sawn widthwise in two lunglike halves, the front covered in pristine, unsmoked Marlboros, the rear burned to a charred husk. Healthier fare arrives in the form of William Hambling (2022), a vast and very phallic concrete marrow. Maybe it was named after some prizewinning squash grower, who seeks to compensate for his physical shortcomings by cultivating outsize veg.
Now in her sixties, and based in rural Suffolk, Lucas appears to be enjoying her autumn years. Her photograph Stooks (2023) depicts her sitting in a field among bundles of gleaming corn, a smile on her face. Does it matter that Happy Gas doesn’t really function as a retrospective, when there will be other harvests to gather in, more work to come?
Happy Gas at Tate Britain, London, through 14 January