New York

Sarah Lucas

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

If nothing else, Sarah Lucas’ sometimes abrasive, invariably funny art puts paid to the myth of British decorum. Delivered with the visual equivalent of a belch, Lucas’ work turns the tables on her American audience, placing the dainty tea cup in the hands of those who espouse the politically correct. Though the “fuck off” quotient that previously afforded her work its Doberman bite may be somewhat diluted in her recent show, this in no way signals that she has surrendered to the protocols of identity politics. Rather, in redirecting attention from the expletive to the sculptural, this latest work demonstrated that beyond the Situationist shock tactics lies a realpolitik in which humor and subversion take the place of pontification.

Lucas’ streetwise brand of dirty (old man) realism has little to do with questions of identity as endlessly debated in the hallowed halls of the academy, and everything to do with how they play out on a day-to-day basis. Autobiographical but never confessional, it pits everyday life, as relayed through British tabloid culture, against the legacy of Surrealism and the economy of the readymade. Supersensible, 1994–95, is a boots-forward self-portrait of macho defiance: the androgynous figure is slouched on a chair, framed by a recessional gridded space constructed of painted-over clippings from the gutter press. Tabloid tales of porn-ring perverts and politicians overlap and intersect in a kind of Venn diagram of moral turpitude. Setting the tone for the whole show, content here seems to follow the contours of the painting’s poorly constructed stretcher. Literally curling away from the tradition of the image as two-dimensional specimen case, Supersensible refuses to be pinned down. As the rest of the work suggests, the stereotypes in which Lucas traffics are three-dimensional, the subject and substance of life as much as art.

Two table pieces, the most successful in the show, are both variations of previously exhibited works. Bitch, 1995, consists of a simple Salvation Army table. At one end, suspended in a white, cutout T-shirt are two melons—a pendulous parody of exactly the sort of anatomical drama that sustains British tabloids. Pinned to the other end is a vacuum-packed fish. Thus anthropomorphized, the kitchen table in Bitch reworks the gratuitous misogyny of Allen Jones’ famous 1969 Table, pricking the bloated referentials of sex and work with irreverence and braggadocio. Downstairs the subtly titled, Fucked (Two Fried Eggs & a Hot Dog in a Split Bun with Herpes), 1995, also pushes the envelope of taste in the name of sexual appetite. With Chaucerian ribaldry, Lucas literalizes pejorative slang, forcing us not only to take our sexual stereotyping for real, but to confront it in the polite society of the art world. On the floor next to Fucked stood a stove on which new eggs were fried every few days, perpetuating the piece’s sick joke; what might have been a one-time laugh turns into a multiple grimace. After all, hers are not the politics of gentle inoculation. Lucas refuses to occupy the secure moral high ground of deconstructive analysis, choosing instead to deflate the stereotype by embracing and occupying it: she fights the pox with pox, or in this case, with two fried eggs and a hot dog.

Coarse and gritty, like the concrete cast of an indelicate gesture placed in the stairwell, Lucas’ art ventilates a debate that in America at least has begun to suffocate beneath the weight of its own pieties. Not all of it works, but when it does, it combines subversive humor and acuity with a serious message: that misogynist posturing, as we all know, is less cock than bull.

Neville Wakefield