Many of the themes explored in this highly graphic and sexualised show are as classically subversive and disparaging as one would anticipate, but there is undeniable substance behind the Sarah Lucas aesthetic: a subtext of far greater subtlety than a cursory look may afford.
I admit, as I entered Gallery 1 at Whitechapel I had my hackles raised at least halfway. Is there, one wonders, any more obvious and childish euphemism than the round-thing-round-thing-long-thing motif? It’s precarious territory, but Lucas quickly communicates an acute awareness of this and therefore puts the ball into her critics’ court: after all – regardless of taste – criticism of the creative use of the unromantic can be traced through pretty much every generation to date, with legitimacy always seeming to crystallise in retrospect. This show, however, is not looking for retrospective appreciation, instead projecting itself as outwardly concerned with the present.
Much of what you read on Lucas’s work refers to objects being merely signifiers or ‘stand-ins’ for human activity, but far from mere representations, these sculptures very much exist as self-contained vessels of meaning and take on a distinct humanity of their own. Objects, instead of simply alluding to sexual acts, become erotically charged in themselves, presenting a vividly deconstructive abstraction of human sexuality and relationships. The show’s use of materials reflects this sentiment brilliantly, operating in a realm of lurid extremes. Breezeblocks, meat, bright lights, tights, metal, plaster: everything is either heavy or clear or fleshy or hung or stretched or squint-inducingly bright, but rarely is this use unintelligent or gratuitous. Duchampian toilet bowls are placed in close proximity to strip-lights thrust through sofa cushions and huge, totemic phalli protrude out of the ground, beneath zeppelins (one complete with motorised, masturbating arm) hung slightly too low to guarantee head clearance. Imposingly large self-portraits pervade the exhibition too, so that visitors constantly find themselves under the somewhat dictatorial gaze of the artist herself. It all re-iterates how this show is ultimately more introspective that retrospective: a psychological obstacle course through the cramped vulgarity of Lucas’ own creative imagination.

Sarah Lucas, Au Naturel, 1994. Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges, and cucumber © the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Sarah Lucas, Au Naturel, 1994. Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges, and cucumber © the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Curatorally, the show – especially in the first room – is cramped indeed; I had to pay attention to ensure I didn’t walk into something while observing something else. It’s all in the name of the uncomfortable and the overwhelming , although at times this can come across as tediously confrontational as opposed to artfully challenging. Gallery 1 is the show’s overture – Lucas beckoning the viewer into her realm and then using this as a context to deliver more sensitive themes later on. As visitors ascend the stairs to Gallery 9, they are confronted with Self-Portrait with Skull, and the adjacent neon coffin New Religion (Orange). The self-portrait is certainly one of the strongest works in the show. A skull placed carefully on the floor between a relaxed Lucas’ spread legs recalls the ‘tomb vs womb’ dialogue traceable through, for instance, Tamora’s devouring of her sons in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It’s a playoff between tenderness and destruction: two major themes that characterise Lucas’s oeuvre, and as one rounds the corner to face the mattress-based Au Nautrel, leaning against a crushed car between high walls of (Gary Hum’s) partially concealed genitalia, it becomes clear that either of those can be worked into the perception. Crushed cars can be found in every room of the show, and interestingly works like Au Naturel were not originally exhibited next to them. It’s uncanny redolent of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, which details a sexual fascination with car accidents and warned of a beckoning in technological horizon that Lucas here seems to have openly acknowledged.
Gallery 8, the final room, feels positively spacious in comparison to the previous two, and sic Moore-esque shining bronzes – Dacre, Patrick More, Hoolian, Realidad, Nahuiollin and Nduda – again supply some of the show’s best work. Previously shown this year at the Venice Biennale, they provide an intelligent exploration in surface, light and abstraction in relation to body language, not to mention a vitally contemplative and (gasp) beautiful facet to an exhibition that could easily stray into unbecoming territories of vulgarity for its own sake. In light of this, they still sit in a state of tension before a backdrop of yet more giant penes, also exhibited with Ballard-esque crushed cars. This show is full-on to say the least, but yields reluctant warmth if given the chance. It must be said that by the time I leant through the heavy door to exit Gallery 8, I couldn’t deny the fatigue; I was simply bored with willies, but Lucas masterfully overwhelms, exhausts and challenges her viewers in a retrospective sure to cement her status as an essential British artist.
Whitechapel Gallery (2 October – 15 December 2013). Supported by Louis Vuitton. 
Will Stokes

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