Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel
Sarah Lucas Cracks Notions of Natural Behavior in Retrospective
By Hannah Rothbard
Sprawling over the three main floors at the New Museum, Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel provides insight into the thirty-year career of British visual artist Sarah Lucas, featuring over 150 works by the artist in sculpture, photography, video, and installation. The wide array of media she uses — eggs, stockings, cigarettes, and more — may appear random and humorous at first glance; however, each and every material is loaded with symbolism and intention, creating a provocative, wholistic experience for the viewer with countless points of analysis.
Let’s start with the title: “Au Naturel,” a French phrase meaning “in the natural” or “in the nude.” With a title like that, one would expect to see beautiful, classical paintings of female nudes, but Sarah Lucas’ work is all about challenging expectations. The exhibition features plenty of nudity, just not the traditional, graceful kind: think cigarettes stuck into the holes of headless and torso-less cast plaster bodies and a whole, raw chicken shielding a man’s junk from view...weird.
But that’s the point. Au Naturel presents absurd eroticism as natural, seeking to disturb and challenge our traditional views of sexuality, gender, and identity. The communicative power in Lucas’ work comes from its weirdness and perplexity.
Lucas forces us to confront our own perverted minds through the arrangement of found and fabricated objects. The sculpture which lends its name to the exhibition consists of two melons, two oranges, a cucumber, and a bucket placed on a mattress. The assemblage seemingly means nothing, but when arranged as Lucas has done, evokes the notion of a man and woman lying in bed. No faces, no limbs, no romance, just sex. Is that all we are? Lucas’ arts practice is heavily influenced by the work of psychologist Sigmund Freud; several of the works from her current exhibition at the New Museum have been previously shown at the Freud Museum in London.
The directness of Lucas’ video art is extremely provocative as well, drawing on Freudian ideas. “Sausage Film,” a nine minute video of the artist cutting up and eating the phallic-shaped meat product, plays on a small screen in a corner of the gallery space. In accordance with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the film evokes castration anxiety, countering the common way men view cultural representations of women eating phallic-shaped foods as suggestive or seductive. Lucas’s calm and serious demeanor throughout the film aims to remove this view, to challenge viewers to watch without laughing, without thinking about sex or their own sexual organs. Just watch the woman eat a sausage.
Once again challenging us not to divert our attention, Lucas presents us with a film of her cracking raw eggs all over her partner Julian Simmon’s body, scrambling them and massaging them around every crevice of his body, including his genitals. Eggs are a recurring motif in Au Naturel. Traditionally representing rebirth in pagan tradition, eggs take on a new meaning in Lucas’s work. One of her photographs in the exhibition, “Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs,” depicts exactly that. Gazing straight at the viewer, Lucas slouches in an armchair, legs sprawled in a masculine position. A fried egg sits atop each of her clothed breasts, juxtaposing body and gender. While many of Lucas’s works like this one create ambiguity surrounding gender, they emphasize the naturality of different gender expressions and sexual orientations. The work “One Thousand Eggs: for Women” features one-thousand eggs thrown at a wall by women only. Bright yellow yolk drips down a white wall creating asymmetric stripes, leading down to a pile of shells. The cracking of eggs aims to deconstruct social constructs surrounding reproduction as a woman’s purpose and sexual goal. Lucas rejects puritanism in favor of pleasure, shunning the idea that female nakedness and sexuality is vulnerability. Standing with women in the fight for autonomy over our bodies, Lucas affirms that sex is natural, not political. Her dismantling of traditional sexual power dynamics empowers women to take action in the face of current political opposition while also criticizing the idea of politicizing human bodies in the first place. Lucas’s work makes a bold statement in the contemporary political climate; however, it merits universal relevance by displaying both the irony and necessity present in all movements for the advancement of equality which require us to fight for recognition of inherent rights within the framework of social constructs.
The aforementioned works provide only a glimpse into the body of work that defines Sarah Lucas’s lengthy career. I chose to focus on her works which involve food imagery, but the New Museum’s retrospective features a variety of other collections of her works, which all come together powerfully in this space. Each individual piece speaks for itself and has added meaning by belonging to a series. Furthermore, the merging of different collections in one space under one titled exhibition adds another layer of significance. To me, that is what is most notable about Au Naturel: it is successful in reflecting on and paying respect to the career of Sarah Lucas as well as its power to provoke viewers to challenge their minds and ideologies, to question their preconceived notions of natural thought, feeling, and behavior.