Monday, 24 September 2012

Sarah Lucas: Ordinary Things, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (19 July-21 October 2012)

Art history writing rarely favours artists who found great success (particularly financial) within their own lifetime and as the continuing passage of time sorts out the winners from the ‘also rans’ among the “Young British Artists” of the 1990s, if I were a betting woman I would put my money on the work of Sarah Lucas receiving more historical analysis and yes, even acclaim, than that of Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.  Despite its (in)famous crass humour and apparent irreverence to sculptural traditions, Lucas’ work is neither as throw away in attitude or thrown together in its making as it might initially suggest.  Scratch the surface and it soon becomes apparent that there is a committed, culturally and sculpturally engaged artist at work here, more than deserving of her place in academic journals and elevation from her previous Cool Britannia, anti-artist persona.
Lucas has been working and exhibiting consistently (both nationally and internationally) for over twenty years.  Ordinary Things looks broadly across her practice to date as well as offering an alternative reading of her work, eloquently described on the Institute’s website as follows:

“Many exhibitions of Lucas' work have focused on her as a central player within British art in the 1990s. Ordinary Things offers a counter position: this exhibition of thirty sculptures turns to the sculptural rather that the sensational, positioning Lucas' work within an art historical lineage that addresses the materials and processes of sculpture. From 'Big Fat Anarchic Spider' (1993) to 'NUDS' (2009-2010), to 'Unknown Soldier' (2003) and 'Jubilee' (2012), via 'Suffolk Bunny' (1997-2004), 'Au Naturel' (1994) and 'Penetralia' (2008), Ordinary Things identifies Lucas' consistent questioning of the definition of sculpture. Lucas works with the 'ordinary things' that form our surroundings and assumptions.

Sculpture is formed of a narrow and specific history, concerned with processes of making and informed by the ways in which human beings use objects to attempt to make sense of the surrounding world. Lucas' sculptures are built on the art historical idea of what a sculpture might be - an object, defined by gravity, space, the human body and naturally found forms. Ordinary Things locates Lucas' works firmly in this history, with the works pointing to the canon of sculpture, ranging from third century Italian votives, Bernini's classical statuary, the figures of Henry Moore and the natural materials of Barbara Hepworth, to the Arte Povera strategies of Mario Merz and the found objects of Robert Filliou. Her works also recall the knotted bodies of Orlan from the 1960s and the dolls of Hans Bellmer and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as the surrealist figures of Pablo Picasso, Robert Gober and Louise Bourgeois, Cycladic torsos and archaeological artefacts. Ordinary Things is a consideration of the ways in which Lucas uses the sculptural languages of the figure and the cast. Made by her own hand, her objects are produced through the languages that surround them, materials that are ready at hand, and sculptural procedures and traditions, taking in cutting, welding, moulding, handling, stuffing, assembling; monumental, ready-made, formal, quick-build, representational and abstract.

Lucas' sculptures are made of and from the human body - a decaying and sensible object that requires maintenance and care. 'Au Naturel' (1994) is a portrait of a couple on a bed, a man represented by a cucumber and a pair of oranges and a woman by a pair of melons and a bucket. Both vulgar compositions are constructed from materials and vernacular slang that are commonplace, their 'human' component made from organic matter that needs to be replaced as inevitable decay sets in. In the seven 'NUDS' (2009-2010) here on display, limbs can be seen wrapping around each other in knotted couplings and solo acrobatics, the cellulite-marked flesh formed from 'natural' tights stuffed with fluff and stiffened by wire, the delicate surface bruised and wrinkled as the bodies perch on their breeze-block supports.”

While the casual gallery visitor coming to this exhibition may indeed have no desire to scratch the surface of Lucas’ work in order to discover what’s really going on underneath the bravado and seek no more than the visual double-entendre puns, the melon tits and cucumber cocks, the fact that The Henry Moore Institute is one of many such renowned and respected organisations which continue to favour Lucas’ work, bears testament to the very serious reputation she has now acquired.