In the catalogue essay for Sarah Lucas: Au Natural, Lucas’ first solo retrospective in the United States, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, which opens at the New Museum in New York this week, Maggie Nelson writes: “It’s a truism that all art (or all good art) somehow transforms the ordinary. But not all art (not even all good art) makes ordinary things feel magic.” The statement is no less true for being about the frequent use of dicks in Lucas’ work – a motif the artist has interrogated, too. “Reasons to make a penis,” she begins: “Appropriation, because I don’t have one; voodoo economics; totemism; they’re a convenient size for the lap; fetishism; compact power; Dad; why make the whole bloke?; gents; gnomey; because you don’t see them on display very much; for religious reasons having to do with the spark.”
Lucas began exhibiting in the late 1980s among London’s provocateur “Young British Artists” – a group who created an escalating frenzy in contemporary art that has yet to die down. She remains one of the most influential British artists working today, addressing gender and class politics through a multi-disciplinary practice of collage, photography, and sculpture – often made of found objects such as newspaper clippings, cigarettes, women’s stockings, or fruit. Her visual language is playful, lumpy, and surreal, compelled by ambiguity, anthropomorphism, and a very British sense of humor – at times dry, at others caustic and lewd, but always accepting of the imperfection and absurdity of the human condition. If Lucas is still making a palpable impact on young and emerging artists, it is for her humor and critical engagement, and perhaps for the relatability of her background, of her early career, and of the path that led to her now distinctive visual voice. Here, New Museum artistic director and Au Naturel curator Massimiliano Gioni speaks to Lucas about those beginnings, and how things have changed.
MASSIMILIANO GIONI: When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?
SARAH LUCAS: I don’t know. I didn’t have any idea about being an artist or about what contemporary art was until I went to college. Obviously I knew a bit about art before that, but I liked art like kids like art. I didn’t have any idea about wanting to be the kind of artist that I am now.
MG: How did you decide to study art, then?
SL: I left school when I was sixteen: I wanted to get out as soon as possible. I actually went to college when I was twenty-one, to do a foundation course. I was looking for something to do with my life that could be interesting. I didn’t want a boring life, so I did give that some thought. And I had worked with somebody who had been to art college and said I might like it. So I started taking some evening art classes. I wasn’t necessarily thinking I’d have a career in art, I just thought it would be interesting.
MG: Your work has often been interpreted as a commentary about class, particularly within British culture. Do you think that had to do with the way you came to art?
SL: When I left school, I hadn’t thought about life after school, I just wanted to find a way out of there. The moment you’re out and you start looking through the classified ads, you realize, for the first time, the drudgery of it all, and the limited options you have forced yourself into. I wanted to do everything I could to get away from that life.
MG: So you came to art as a means of escape.
SL: Yes, but not right at the beginning. First, I was just taking evening classes to get myself into college. From there I applied to Goldsmiths. At that time I was starting to think, well, I quite liked this and was doing all right, but it was still weird because I couldn’t understand what anybody was talking about. There were so many different types of people at college, a lot of them from a different social class than mine. Everybody else had come straight from school, and I had quit school. All the other students looked like they knew what they were doing, but they probably knew less than me because they were just going from one thing to the next, while I was trying to find my own way. That experience taught me to question myself and others. It was only at Goldsmiths that I was suddenly exposed to contemporary art and became quite serious about it.
MG: What did your work look like at that point?
SL: When I was in the foundation course, it wasn’t a fine art course: it was more about design, craft, and printmaking. During the summer break between the course and Goldsmiths, I thought I needed to make something that was really art, or something like it, and I started making this map of London from memory. I started on a bit of paper, and it got bigger, and then I realized things weren’t in the right place, so I’d tear a bit off and stick it on somewhere else, and the map just grew and grew. It wasn’t the whole of London, but it was everything I knew about London at that time. That was the first thing I did that made me think: “This is something.” I thought art needed to be good almost independently of me. It needed to be not about me being good at something, but rather about being a thing in itself. The map achieved that, and I took it along to Goldsmiths.
MG: Before Goldsmiths, were there people you were close to with whom you spoke about art?
SL: Not really. Not in a way that had anything to do with art history. Perhaps in a general, romantic way as applied to pop music and poetry with a few of my teenage friends. I always had to work and had a lot of part-time jobs. Around that time, I started being a squatter, looking for somewhere to live that was cheap. At the time, in the area of Elephant and Castle, there was quite a big squatters’ movement, because there was a lot of run-down property there. I got very involved with that scene: people were forming bands, making their own entertainment, and agitating the council for better housing. It was a whole different world, very communal and very committed. We were working together to fix things and to protest or influence the council. Every aspect of one’s life was engaged in this attitude, from politics to music to just everyday life.
MG: Do you find that this approach had a direct influence on the work you ended up making as an artist? It sounds very much like a do-it-yourself approach—part bricoleur and part punk.
SL: It’s difficult to know what is reflected or not in the work, but the idea of being collaborative and open to other people stayed with me, and that kind of idealistic or utopian tension is still there. The desire to establish equal relations between people, and perhaps even between things, persists in my work.
MG: Do you think the abrasive quality of your work—the sense of anger that I see in some of your early works, like the cement boots or the shoes with the razor blades—came out of that conflictual relationship between political and social work and mainstream culture? Was art a tool of confrontation for you?
SL: It’s a tricky thing, and I don’t know how angry I was, but I’ve certainly gotten that reputation. In those days, I had no money whatsoever: I had to go everywhere either by foot or by bicycle. I was walking across half of London sometimes. I’d go to a party and have to walk back on my own, and London was a much scarier place at that time. Just to walk around in some areas you had to be a bit tough. I think it was a practicality as much as anything else, because you have to protect yourself.
MG: Would you say that it was at Goldsmiths that you realized you were going to be an artist?
SL: I don’t think so, actually. I had already been out of Goldsmiths for a year when the “Freeze” show happened in 1988. Being at Goldsmiths was kind of brilliant because it had no syllabus and hardly any academic requirements. If you wanted to speak to a tutor, you made an appointment with them to have a chat, but it was very informal. I wasn’t the person that went in for the most teaching in the world, but there were good teachers—notably, for me, Richard Wentworth and Michael Craig-Martin. Many others. It was a good mix. Goldsmiths was also very social and I got to know people who had left the school three years before, and people who had come up behind me. It was like a proper organism, and, in that way, it mirrors what real life is like or what the real art world is like. After the “Freeze” show, I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to stop doing this,” mainly because I got so fed up with investing in a load of materials—bricks or blue shiny plastic, or whatever it might be—and filling up my whole room with it, and nobody being interested in it. I thought, “I’m just cluttering myself up here,” and I hate clutter. After “Freeze,” when galleries were sniffing around various friends of mine, I started to realize that, OK, this could happen, but I wouldn’t say I was sure it was going to happen to me.
MG: What did you show in “Freeze”?
SL: The show kept evolving: there were different iterations of it. In the first show, I had some abstract aluminum sculptures that were somehow crushed up. For the second iteration, I showed some brick walls that looked like they were hanging on the wall: they looked like brick-wall paintings, made of actual bricks but still quite abstract.
MG: When was your first solo show after that?
SL: It must have been 1991. Between “Freeze” and the first solo show I had pretty much stopped making work. It was just too expensive and all that stuff was filling up the house: what makes sense while you are in school doesn’t make sense once you are out of school. I found myself just doing much smaller things and using newspapers and bits of photography as material, not big cumbersome things, but things that actually interested me. That’s how I began to bring more social content into the work.
MG: It’s interesting that you speak about social content, because to me your work is also very much about spending time alone: it’s about what people do in their free time. Some of your small sculptures feel like you are just fidgeting with things, and others look like the kind of work that amateurs and hobbyists do. I loved the exhibition of prison art that you curated a few years ago in London, because it highlighted the fact that your sculpture is something that is done to pass time, or perhaps to give value to a time that would otherwise be wasted or perceived as valueless. It’s unemployment time.
SL: Yes, exactly. When we left college, there was this great big dash among the students to get studios. I used to think, “Why do you want a studio if you don’t even know what you’re going to do yet?” Fortunately, I never cared so much about having a studio, and still don’t. After school, I was going out with Gary Hume and I just had a corner in his studio. I can work anywhere.
MG: In some other works of yours there is a sense of idleness, perhaps drinking beer or just sitting around, maybe a bit depressed, smoking a cigarette or sitting on a toilet, staring at the wall. Some of these works also could be read as a parody of a certain idea of Britishness: all that time wasted at the pub . . .
SL: I don’t know if I have ever set out to parody Britishness, it’s just something you can’t really take out of me, I suppose. I am quite typical in some ways, although I’m probably not that typical of British women; I’m more typical of British blokes.
MG: I also find that your work has immortalized a way of life that in the meantime has disappeared. I remember looking at your work at the same time as I was watching Ken Loach’s movies, like Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993), and retrospectively it seems to me that both your work and his came to chronicle the disappearance of the working class, instead of its emancipation.
SL: That might be true, but I didn’t do that on purpose. Early on, there was a point when I realized that maybe I’m just old-fashioned and can relate to those disappearing worlds. It’s also quite difficult to be objective about those kinds of things. You’re caught up in it, and you don’t really see yourself: you’re just carried away by events. To a certain extent, we are all just the product of the time we live in. You could also say that about being part of a generation, which is something that often comes up when discussing art in the 1990s in London.
MG: Between “Freeze” and your first show, with its legendary title “Penis Nailed to a Board” (1992), where else did you show?
SL: I had actually stopped being bothered about being in other shows. But around 1990, I realized I had a bunch of stuff that I liked, and it coincided with some luck, because I was invited by the gallery City Racing to do a show there, and that’s how “Penis Nailed to a Board” came about. Then Michael Landy was supposed to do a show at Karsten Schubert, and he couldn’t finish his work in time, so instead he invited a bunch of friends to make a group show, and I was one of those. Then another friend of mine was supposed to be doing something in an old shop on Kingly Street and she couldn’t because something had happened in her family, so with two weeks’ notice I got to have that show. Everything happened at once. One thing rolled into another, and I had some works that were finished earlier and some things that I just knocked up, and that turned out to be my breaking moment, when people realized I was up to something, whatever that was.
MG: Where did you show Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992)?
SL: That was on Kingly Street, in a shop. There used to be this organization called Alternative Art, which helped artists to use spaces that were empty in the West End. This was one of those shops, and I was invited to do something in it. In the front of the shop I put the table with the kebab and fried eggs and there was also the pan for frying eggs. Then there was a room in the back with The Old Couple (1991), which is the piece with two chairs and the teeth and the penis. And that was it, which I thought was brilliant. I made both of those pieces quite quickly right before the show. I didn’t have a lot of time to mess about. It amused me to think that people would come in to see the table with the kebab. I think it’s quite nice to show just one thing, just like that.
MG: What kind of audience came to see the Kebab piece?
SL: A lot of people just stumbled on it by seeing the table from the window. The three shows—the one at Karsten Schubert, “Penis Nailed to a Board,” and “The Whole Joke,” which featured Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab—overlapped, so a few people in the art world saw all three. I remember Lawrence Luhring came to see Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, and he was very encouraging. Charles Saatchi bought it, which was weird. My jaw just dropped. I had no expectations. I also met a lot of people during that time who became my good friends for the rest of my life.
MG: Can you tell me more about “Penis Nailed to a Board”? What did the show include?
SL: It included the big posters: Monster Hooker (1991), Great Dates (1992), the ones with the newspapers. There was a piece with a bicycle upside down that was turned into a kind of plinth on which were six or seven photographs of a naked bloke with fruit and veg covering and replicating his genitals. And then there was Soup (1989), the picture with the knobs, and the board game Penis Nailed to a Board (1991). It was simple, but it felt like I was finding my own voice.
MG: The whole show must have felt rough and aggressive, with the large tabloid collages. Those pieces are usually read in relation to certain exploitative stereotypes of femininity. But to me, a piece like the bicycle sculpture connects to the tradition of Arte Povera, and before that to the Surrealist fascination with everyday objects and domestic spaces, not to mention Duchamp and his wheel. Were any of these references playing an active role in your work at the time?
SL: You have to be careful when it comes to influences. All those ideas might have been there, but they become more interesting when you project them onto the sculpture after it has been made. Personally, I wasn’t concerned about influences or other people’s work: I was more concerned about making something that, however weird, was something I could stand for. It was more about me than about anybody else’s work. Then again, you can’t take those references out of it, but it’s not like I placed them in there. I think I’m actually quite myopic when working. Maybe those ideas say something more interesting about the viewer than about me. The funny thing about the large tabloid collages is that I hated all that tabloid stuff. It was only when I started making artworks out of them that I started enjoying them. When I first moved to my house in London, I used to get a million pizza leaflets through the door every day. It used to drive me nuts; it used to make me furious. And then one day I just stuck them all to the front door, and after that, I started liking them.
MG: That’s always the dilemma with works that engage popular culture: Is the work critical or complicit, even celebratory?
SL: Those works are pretty critical, but they aren’t as simple as saying I like or dislike that material. Anytime you use something, no matter how disgusting, there has to be some pleasure in it, if only because you transform it and you do something with it, rather than just being passively assaulted by it. But at the same time, I remember that with the tabloid stuff, the funny thing was seeing other people’s reactions to it, because each viewer brings her own prejudices to the works. It’s about turning things around, really, and the realization that looking at art is a self-conscious business.
MG: Did you feel there was any difference in the reaction to these works, particularly with the tabloids, depending on who the viewer was?
SL: I don’t think I make things for a specific type of public. I like to be as broad as possible. I’m not anti-intellectual or anything; I just think things can operate on different levels. I want to make works that anybody can relate to, not only the people from the art world, but also the ordinary man or woman on the street, from the particular class I came from.
MG: And what happened when your own work ended up in the tabloids? I’m sure there were plenty of occasions in which your work was attacked in the press: it’s another British tradition.
SL: The weird thing about the tabloid press is that it exists in its own reality: it just follows itself and feeds itself. It’s like a novel with its own characters.
MG: So you were never really devoured by the tabloids? Not even at the time of “Sensation”?
SL: Well, you know, just the usual twenty years of remarks about my vulgarity, and a bit of joking and one-liners about my work, not too bad. They’ve probably got bigger fish to fry.
MG: Would you say your work was also about the culture of celebrity that was emerging in the 1990s, of which tabloids were an early expression? The defamation of character, the paparazzi, the cannibalism of public figures . . .
SL: All that was very much in the air, but when I look back on it now, I think that at the time I was quite keen to be different. It used to get on my tits, thinking that I was part of the same scene as everybody else. I was trying to find my voice, not to make work about other art around me.
Sarah Lucas: Au Natural runs from September 26, 2018 until January 20, 2019 at the New Museum in New York City, 235 Bowery.