An interview with Sarah Lucas can be disconcerting. Stopping by her temporary studio in London three years ago, as she was preparing to represent Great Britain at the 2015 Venice Biennale, I found the artist inexplicably bound to her chair by duct tape. Just one arm had been left free to allow her to hold a glass or cigarette. Filming the proceedings was Julian Simmons, her puckish partner, collaborator, and coconspirator. Around us, striking various poses, were what Lucas called her “Muses.” These were plaster life casts of the naked lower halves of Lucas and eight of her female friends—among them her gallerist, Sadie Coles—which were waiting to be shipped to Venice, where they would be given the finishing touch: real cigarettes cheekily inserted into various orifices.
Now the Muses—cigarettes and all—are to be reunited for Lucas’s survey show at the New Museum, in New York, which opens September 26. It’s Lucas’s first major American exhibition, and this time there’s no bondage involved. She spoke to me at her home, a modest farmhouse overlooking the cornfields of rural Suffolk that was once owned by the English composer Benjamin Britten. Lucas has lived here with Simmons for the past 10 years, and she relishes its seclusion; despite her raucous reputation and often throat-grabbing work, Lucas has always shied away from the celebrity so keenly embraced by artist friends Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. She laughingly dismisses the circumstances of our last conversation, saying she can’t quite remember why she and Julian decided she should be trussed up. “We’d just been out for lunch with the whole workshop and had a few drinks,” she says.
Drinking, smoking, and conviviality have always played a key role in the work and life of the 55-year-old Lucas, now widely regarded as one of Britain’s most important and influential artists. She emerged in the 1990s as part of the hard-partying generation of so-called Young British Artists, along with Hirst, Emin, and Gary Hume. Hirst, who studied alongside Lucas at Goldsmiths art school, owns many of her works and has called her the greatest artist he knows—comparing her talent for putting everyday things together with that of Picasso, and adding that “she is out there, stripped to the mast like Turner in the storm, making excellent pieces over and over again.”
Lucas doesn’t have a signature style. What identifies her work is a uniquely inventive ability to use often unexpected materials to prod at sexual stereotypes and conventional notions of taste and acceptability. Eggs and cigarettes feature regularly, as do toilets, old furniture, pantyhose, underwear, and beer cans. “Early on, I wanted to keep things simple, rough-and-ready, almost a kind of anti-style,” she says. “I liked the idea of just keeping things together with ideas and attitude.” Assembled sculptures such as Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992) use just that to create a provocative parody of the female form, laid out on a battered tabletop; the whole series of limp, leggy “Bunny” figures (from 1997 onward) is made out of stuffed women’s tights.
Right from the start, Lucas was equally merciless when she addressed machismo, whether in pieces such as the photographs of a faceless naked male (in fact, her then-boyfriend, Hume) whose crotch is covered with various suggestive objects including a fizzing beer can, a bottle of milk, and a pair of digestive biscuits; or the “Penetralia” works of this past decade, which combine found pieces of wood and plaster replicas of Simmons’s penis. (“Julian likes having his knob cast,” Lucas remarks.) Yet while she may often use throwaway materials, and admits to enjoying working “on the hoof,” these bawdy bodily works are always meticulously constructed. “I am really not grungy at all,” Lucas says. “I might be very homemade, and I might be using quite cheap materials, but I am always quite precise, and think of myself as a formalist, even.”
Her process is “very open to incident,” says Margot Norton, who co-curated Lucas’s New Museum survey, “but there’s a tension between the way the work seems so casually put together and how the details and the composition are so carefully considered.” The work’s explicit directness, she adds, comes not so much from wanting to shock but from a serious—and studious—desire to grapple with and better understand the less appealing aspects of the world around her. Lucas’s close study of feminist theory and psychoanalysis has resulted in “an interesting interplay between the seeming casualness of its production and these theoretical and conceptual frameworks that she has such an erudite handle on.”
Lucas says that her preoccupation with “the sex thing” goes all the way back to the beginning of her career when, inspired by her early readings of the American feminist Andrea Dworkin, she set about engaging with the very things that “got on my tits,” as she puts it. “When I left college, I felt utterly bereft of any reason for making art, and it really did strike me quite forcefully that the whole of what we call reality is really a construction, and it could be made some other way if you use this material rather than be assaulted by it.”
The multilayered messages of Lucas’s work are especially evident in the numerous photographs of herself that she has made throughout her career, many of them included in the New Museum show. In all, she appears just as she does in person: unadorned, with lanky hair and no makeup. The look is androgynous and often confrontationally direct, as Lucas stares out at the viewer while pulling on a cigarette or sitting splay-legged and wearing two suggestively placed fried eggs. In one, she wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan SELFISH IN BED; in another, a large fish is slung over one shoulder. Although Lucas is the subject, she does not consider them self-portraits. “It’s not me taking the picture; they always happened when I was around people with whom I was intimately involved,” she stresses. “In a way, it is about doing things collaboratively or communally, about being looked at by or playing with someone else.” Lucas says she finds it problematic that over the years these images have dictated a certain laddish, defiant reading of her work, and it is perhaps significant that the most recent four “Red Sky” works, taken by Simmons earlier this year and shown on these pages, show her deliberately blurred and in motion, her face partially obscured by whorls of cigarette smoke.
No doubt the artist’s irreverent challenging of notions of gender and sexual propriety will find particular resonance in the current climate of #MeToo and female activism. “There’s something so liberating about how she gets right to the core of these fundamental constrictions that govern our society and seeks to redefine them,” Norton says. For her part, Lucas is rather more modest: “I don’t know what American viewers will make of it, but I’m feeling pretty good about the whole thing: We’ll have to see what it throws up.” And with that, she lights a cigarette and smiles.