Tate Britain are presenting a major survey of Sarah Lucas, whose career kicked off in the early 1990s as part of the Young British Artists (YBA) movement spearheaded by Damien Hirst and his fellow students of Goldsmiths College of Art class of 1984-87. Lucas achieved some critical disdain as well as acclaim for her bold art, which could be interpreted as confrontational but was always ingrained with a hint of irony. She went on to represent Great Britain at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and established herself as a leading figure of contemporary art.
The YBA’s led the contemporary art movement of the 90s with ‘Freeze’, a 1988 Goldsmiths graduate exhibition curated by Damien Hirst, which caught the attention of Charles Saatchi and became a legendary part of art history. Sarah Lucas explores issues of mortality, sex, gender and class through her sculpture, photography and installations, and the Tate Britain show features more than 75 works spanning a 40 year period. Titled ‘Happy Gas’, the exhibition is the result of a close dialogue between the Tate Britain curators and the artist, and in retrospect offers a new view of her contribution to art history and commentary on some of the less salubrious elements of the notoriously decadent London in the 90s, notably examining the misogyny of the media and pointing out the gender inequality of the ‘Lads Mag’ era.
The originality of the YBAs was a challenge to the traditional, gentrified British art world of the 90s, and made an indelible impact on the cultural landscape that is felt to this day. Tate Britain’s exhibition begins with some of Lucas’s early works from this era, including those made from tabloid newspaper spreads like ‘Sod You Gits’ (1990) and ‘Fat, Forty and Flab-ulous’ (1990). These introduce the artist’s use of innuendo and word play, as well as her interest in feminist discourse and representations of the female body. Her early career is also reconsidered as part of a wider story, from her childhood to her life today, highlighting her continued examination of social conditions beyond the confines of the art world.
A group of nude plaster casts including ‘Pauline, Sadie and Me’ (Bar Stool) – originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2015 – are reunited at Tate Britain. A highlight of the exhibition is a large gallery of recent sculptures made between 2019 and 2023, including 16 new works displayed for the very first time. Some show a return to the found objects and stuffed tights of Lucas’s early work, such as ‘SUGAR’ (2020) and ‘CROSS DORIS’ (2019), while others are rendered in finely cast bronze and resin. These recent works show how Lucas has continued to rethink the themes which have defined her career, including the objectification of the female form and the anthropomorphic potential of everyday objects, while consistently bringing fresh perspectives to her practice. Chairs and seated figures have a central role in the exhibition.
Sarah Lucas explains: “I decided to hang the exhibition mainly on chairs. Much in the same way that I hang sculptures onto chairs”.
Throughout her career, she has often taken domestic furniture and imbued it with a humorous and unnerving honesty about sex and desire. Tate will bring together a selection of such sculptures from the 1990s, ranging from early examples like ‘The Old Couple’ (1992) – made from two chairs, a wax penis and a set of false teeth – through to later sculptures like ‘Hysterical Attack’, which formed part of an intervention at the Freud Museum in 2000.
Also featured are examples of Lucas’s signature soft sculptures made from stuffed tights, including ‘Mumum’ (2012) and ‘Bunny’ (1997), which was shown in the Royal Academy of Art’s landmark 1997 exhibition ‘Sensation’. The exhibition goes on to explore the growing range of materials used in Lucas’s sculpture, including bronze, resin and concrete. This change in materiality was a major departure from the techniques she had been using for decades, including tights and stuffing, cigarettes and food, which were chosen for their immediate availability. Examples include concrete furniture like ‘Eames Chair’ (2015), bronze casts of stuffed phallic shapes like ‘DICK ‘EAD’ (2018), and giant cast concrete vegetables such as ‘Florian and Kevin’ (2013), which have been installed on the lawn outside Tate Britain to coincide with this exhibition.
Sculptures are juxtaposed with large-scale photographs of the artist from throughout her career, including her earliest and most well-known portrait ‘Eating a Banana’ 1990. Blown up as wallpapers and looking down on her sculptural works, these portraits reflect the important role of the photographic image in Lucas’s practice and set up a dialogue between her older and younger self.
Sarah Lucas comments: “What I look for in materials is readiness. Something I can get on with in a spontaneous way and just do it myself. It might well be that I’m doing this at home at some odd hour of the day. Often the things that are there aren’t generally credited with being an art material – like tights of cigarettes or an onion. The important thing for me is to be able to act on it there and then.”
Sarah Lucas ‘Happy Gas’ is at Tate Britain from 28 September 2023 to 14 January 2024: