Sarah Lucas, Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, color inkjet print, 23 5/9 x 18 7/8".

Sarah Lucas, Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, color inkjet print, 23 5/9 x 18 7/8".

Sarah Lucas

Kunstverein in Hamburg k

Take a table. Fry two eggs and place them side-by-side at one end. At the other, take a kebab and put it in the middle. Seen as a sculpture, these elements pointedly assert their sheer materiality. Even so, to not see them as breasts and a vagina is impossible. Roughly thirty years before Sarah Lucas made Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992, featured in this British artist’s midcareer retrospective, Robert Morris argued for a “literalist” art—devoid of parts—that would deflect anthropomorphic readings. This idea became a standard for Minimalist sculpture. Even though Morris’s unitary gestalts trace back to a performance featuring a box he made to house his own body, Minimalism ultimately eliminated figuration from its purview, thereby putting literalist readings directly at odds with figurative ones. Lucas exploits this tension and uses vulgarity to underscore it.

As a highly condensed gesture, Two Fried Eggs evokes a range of references, from Surrealism and art brut to arte povera and works by Ed Kienholz, Louise Bourgeois, Martin Kippenberger, and Paul McCarthy. It would be specious, however, to say, “That’s what makes it important.” Rather, what Lucas rejects is what counts. She takes up the Minimalist impulse via an alternate set of reference points, connecting its reductivism to antibourgeois, subcultural codes, like the self-stylization of skinheads, the Ramones, or dykes. Her self-portraits bear this out. In these, Lucas usually wears a pared-down uniform of jeans, T-shirt, leather jacket, and work boots or casual shoes. The style is generic, a rejection of nuanced individuality. Although it began as an appropriation of masculine tropes, over time it became Lucas’s trademark.

Ironically, as the differential between her sculpture and her self-portraits suggests, the process of ascribing a masculine or feminine character to suggestively arranged food is not so far removed from the way patriarchal templates tacitly order everyday life. But rather than trying to deconstruct gender’s intrinsic fallacy, Lucas deliberately overconstructs it, baiting her audience with clichés. Conversely, what the viewer projects remains arbitrary, yet wholly automatic and predictable. Work after work repeats this Pavlovian exercise with furniture, mattresses, cigarettes, smoked herring, fruit, fluorescent lights, and beer cans. In each, redundancy is the inescapable point. One combination of objects, that includes fried eggs, coat hangers, and fish, recurs throughout as a “feminine” trope. As a crude mobile, the schematic doubles its capacity to irritate: By boxing the viewer in, Lucas confounds the liberal premise of free interpretation. Here, a cigar is never just a cigar; it is always irremediably a penis.

What’s also important about fried eggs and the kebab as things: They’re ubiquitous, you can eat them, they go bad, and they smell. If, in arte povera, such ephemerality would stand for the preciousness of time and the fragility of existence, from Lucas’s working-class perspective it boils downto devaluation. Time is synonymous with the time clock. Tick by tick, it gradually drains the life out of a worker. Lucas’s self-portraits seemingly invert the terms ofher sculpture. Where an egg or a fish rots right before your eyes, a photograph is supposed to preserve its subject’s state of being. In Eating a Banana, 1990, the artist poses with the fruit stuffed in her mouth, her eyes confronting ours in a sidelong glance. The work bears comparison with Lynda Benglis’s notorious Artforum ad (or, for that matter, Robert Morris’s self-portrait in Nazi regalia). In stark contrast to the naked and greased Benglis—replete with enormous, double-headed dildo—Lucas is understated. Nevertheless, even while she remains fully clothed and refuses to hide behind sunglasses, her approach is much more aggressive because it is less hyperbolic and more believable. It cannot be dismissed as parody. And on some fantasy level, the viewer wants the artist to stay like this: permanently young and defiant.

Subsequent works in this show, like Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, and Self-Portrait with Skull, 1997, reveal that to be wishful thinking indeed. Traces of not only aging, but also embourgeoisement make themselves felt. In Self-Portrait with Skull, the artist sits on the floor with a human skull between her spread legs. It is unmistakably a vanitas gesture, and suggests the same of Lucas’s other works. However, the specter of aesthetic and political nullification, inadvertently conjured up by a favorable review of this exhibition published in the fashion magazine Brigitte, may be the real fate worse than death. What, paradoxically, could be more damning than the headline “Bad Girl Becomes Leading Lady”?

One can discern a discursive trend in Lucas’s large-scale works. These include two cubicle structures, Chuffing Away to Oblivion, 1996, and Bigger Cheaper (and you can do it at home), 1999, along with the installation Car Park, 1997/2005. All three convey space as a socially produced sphere fraught with repression and latent violence. Bigger Cheaper, for example, is a cardboard room, but with a peephole in place of a door. Inside is a tableau featuring a chair, beer crate, and mechanized arm “wanking.” The peephole recalls Duchamp’s Etant donnés, but here the masturbatory gesture forces the patriarchal gaze back on itself. (An especially poignant aspect of this work is the grease stain surrounding the peephole, the apparent result of repeated use.) Car Park is a large room lined with more than a hundred black-and-white photographs, fragmentary views of a deserted parking garage—that overdetermined site, in both movies and real life, of sexual assault. Here Lucas ostensibly focuses on vandalism, as a silver-beige Opel Ascona sits to one side of this arena, its lights and windows smashed, fragments of glass scattered around—yet the discourse of domination, repression, and rebellion is palpable.

Far less successful are Lucas’s “bunny” works, insipid creatures fashioned from pantyhose. Although the artist claims “the inherent sexiness of tights” as the inspiration for these, she somehow loses her grasp of the material. For similar reasons, Unknown Soldier, 2003, a fluorescent tube propped against the wall and flanked by concrete casts of army boots, comes off as overly sentimental. In the sophomoric Self-Portrait with Cigarettes, 2000, the artist glued cigarettes together end-on-end to make a contour drawing. Since one-liners are Lucas’s forte, such occasional failures are bound to happen. Less clear is why they should be included in her midcareer retrospective.

Such pitfalls point to another question. In this overview, it becomes apparent that the question of gender, a central concern in Lucas’s oeuvre, has been more radically problematized by other artists, notably Adrian Piper in her “Mythic Being” series (1972-75). What then distinguishes Lucas is her desire, by working squarely within the gallery system, to beat the boys at their own game. Clearly she’s won. Her works command impressive prices at auction and no account of British art would be complete without her. But few younger artists would now want to copy her. Much has changed since the early ’90s when she burst on the scene as top YBA brass. The past decade has seen the mainstreaming of formerly alternative forms of sexuality, as well as formerly alternative art practices (under the rubric of ’70s practices). Old oppositions—signifiers such as literal/figural and alternative/mainstream—are now much more elusive. And gender hierarchies have become much more flexible, if not less tyrannical. While Lucas’s deliberately crude sculpture still serves as a forceful reminder of this underlying repression, its cultural context has undoubtedly changed.

John Miller is an artist and critic based in New York and Berlin.

Curated by Yilmaz Dziewior and Beatrix Ruf, “Sarah Lucas” remains on view at the Kunstverein Hamburg through Oct. 9, and travels to Tate Liverpool, Oct. 28, 2005–Jan. 15, 2006.