Sarah Lucas

City Racing

Somewhere, I think in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen says of the world that circumstances change and opinions alter. It seems that, in some respects at least, she was only half right. In England last year a group of gay men were arrested and charged with assault because of the sadomasochism they practiced. None of those involved had made a complaint, since none had anything to complain about. The Crown, however, viewed it differently and decided to prosecute, because inflicting pain, whether at the invitation of those to whom it is meted out or not, is an activity that quite simply ought not to go unpunished. Those detained were found guilty and their subsequent appeal against sentencing was turned down. The tabloid press, of course, had a field day with this story. They had license to talk all they liked about what men do in the privacy of their own homes, knowing that they could ultimately find protection behind sanctimonious, heterosexist moralizing. The selected appeal to standards of behavior, prurience, vindictiveness and homophobia in this case beggar belief, but they are some of the yet-unaltered opinions against which Sarah Lucas’ art places itself.

“PENIS NAILED TO A BOARD” was a headline to this story when it appeared in one of the less savory of Britain’s tabloid newspapers. Lucas made a child’s jigsaw puzzle from it, pasting the men’s photographs accompanying the text onto blocks that could then be fitted into the appropriate holes in a cardboard template of the newspaper-page layout. It is a simple exercise, not at all intellectually taxing, and one quite in keeping with the bluntness of the messages Lucas’ work looks at. Her material is sexual stereotyping, gender roles, but there is nothing grimly correct about her subversive stance. What shifts it out of grinding rectitude is the surreality of the territory in which she operates. On the gallery walls were three very large blowups of spreads from the Sport, a publication whose devotion to the creed that sex sells newspapers is of quasi-religious dimensions. On its pages the realities of sexual commodification and of the wielding of oppressive power by men over women rub up against the realm of fantasy. The stories, which are interspersed with the magazine’s otherwise unremitting diet of soft-porn photographs and ads for telephone sex lines, are unashamedly concocted in the style of the National Enquirer. Fantasy is a crucial imaginative motor for the maintenance of such oppressive power, but in the blatant self-awareness of their crass untruthfulness (untruthfulness is not, in fact, the right word since their existence makes no claims to any conceivable truth criteria) these stories make room for Lucas to turn their message to her own end. On the page their risibility allows them to slide out of any responsibility they might be called upon to take for themselves and for the values they promote. Enlarged to the scale of a big boy’s painting, their bombast wipes out any chance of them getting away with the line that they were “only joking.”

In an earlier work Lucas catalogued slang and swear words, looking at how men and women are defined through loaded references to their sexual characteristics and proclivities, bodily waste, and so on. She returned to the field in two works in this exhibition, although on both occasions using visual equivalents rather than the words themselves. In the first, a bicycle (a term of abuse, casting aspersions on a woman’s promiscuity—“she’ll let anyone ride her”) was placed in the middle of the gallery and, with Lucas’ characteristically forthright assumption of control, was turned upside-down to rest on handlebars and saddle—no one is going to ride this bicycle. A wooden plank rests across the wheels, forming a narrow shelf on which are propped photographs of a naked male, sporting, in a straight reversal of the clichéd images of women and fruit, banana and apples in place of cock and balls. The second work was a large photomontage, black and white penis tips floating amidst the sickly colors of a canned-vegetable mush. The image was reminiscent, apropos of Lucas’ surreal edge, of nothing so much as Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, 1945, although what she had really concocted was dick-head soup. It’s what we’re all swimming (drowning) in.

Michael Archer