Art, Antiques & Museums Arts & Culture


  • November 19, 2023
  • 7 min read

by Simon Tait

The exhibition was to be called simply Sarah Lucas until, late in the planning, Lucas rang co-curator Amy Emerson-Martin to say, “It’s going to be called Happy Gas” – on the one hand joyful, the artist says, and on the other slightly sinister, which sums the works up very well. 

Happy gas is, of course, nitrous oxide, also laughing gas, much used by dentists as a mild anaesthetic, but also controlled under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 because for some it creates euphoria, and the government has considered banning it. 

Well, there may not be euphoria in Sarah Lucas’s work, but in this exhibition the fun certainly outdoes the baleful. And it’s personal, which is a trope Lucas gave to the rest of the Young British Artists that turned visual art upside down in Damien Hirst’s exhibition Freeze in 1988, which thrust the YBAs under our noses, and the RA show Sensation a decade later. Lucas said her work was made according to how she felt, not what she thought other people might like. 

The YBAs include Hirst, Lucas, Cornelia Parker, Tracey Emin, Gary Hulme, Angus Fairhurst, you know them, and they didn’t so much as give permission to contemporary artists to think beyond the norm, they seized and flourished it at the world in triumph. They are often called “irreverent”, but that misses the point. Reverence is never a legitimate part of an artist’s approach, and though they might be shocking sometimes the YBAs are never disrespectful, as some critics of Sensation 25 years ago accused them of being.

The daughter of a cleaner-cum-gardener and a milkman, Sarah Lucas was born and brought up on a Holloway housing estate, left school at 16, became pregnant and had an abortion, before hitchhiking around Europe for a year or so, then returning to London and, for want of a better idea she says, studying art at the Working Men’s College, followed by the London College of Printing before joining Goldsmiths in 1984. She now lives with her partner Julian Simmons in the former home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at Aldeburgh.

This exhibition is not just a survey of an artist’s career, though. It’s an account of a movement through one of its most influential muscles. A group that looked to each other rather than outside for approval, that under the tutelage of Michael Craig-Martin were unapologetic about their unconventionality, that eschewed traditional materials to create their work, that developed a reputation for entrepreneurialism. 

The YBAs are 60 now, as is Lucas, and this is an account of her life’s work through 80 pieces, from the earliest series of photographs of her provocatively eating a banana at the viewer (taken by Hume) to 16 new works; the latest being another photograph of her, Stooks, among some hayricks.

Lucas works with everyday found objects that are often shaped and used to challenge a predatory, objectifying male gaze – the first piece in the first room is The Old Couple, two wooden chairs on the seat, one of which is a crudely modelled wax penis and on the other an equally crude set of dentures. After Goldsmiths she discovered, almost to her own surprise, that she is a feminist.

To your right as you enter is Bunny, a pair of stuffed black tights arranged over another wooden chair spread in an abandoned, exhausted sprawl over a dining chair, and on the wall are three enlarged front pages from 1990s tabloid papers shouting out from the walls in all their gormless puerility. “I didn’t give feminism much serious thought until my mid-20s” she says, which was when she discovered Andrea Dworkin’s books Intercourse and Pornography in which the author trawled through the awful history of misogyny. “At that point I started using tabloid newspapers” she says “and I really didn’t have to add any comment. I just blew them up and put them in a gallery”.

Feminism is a constant undertone, but there are other themes in Lucas’s work. The body, how it works, hers and more often others’, is ubiquitous, most often in comically grotesque shapes made by balloons or kapok in tights giving – depending how you see them – slightly pornographic perceptions of (mostly) female figures. “There’s no substitute for genitalia in terms of meaningfulness and a bit of edge” she says, which is another of the YBS tropes.

Cigarettes and smoking appear all the time, sometimes disguised as a patterned fabric, as in the main piece in the final room. There’s a cat, Tit Tom, that appears three times through the exhibition, and latterly Lucas has taken to making giant sandwiches or giant marrows from cement, and toilets seem to have been a theme in her life. The only piece in the exhibition that is from the Tate’s own Lucas holdings is Inferno, a glowing lavatory pan with a cigar poised between two walnuts balanced on the seat.

However, the principal framework for her pieces is a chair, a chair of all kinds. “The purpose of chairs” Lucas says “is to accommodate the human body sitting. They can be turned to other purposes. Generally, as a support for an action or object. Changing light bulbs. Propping open a door. Posing. Sex”. Chairs displaced, like the 2023 piece, Lucas photographed by Simmons sitting casually on a chair in the middle of a hayfield, seen next to a 1995 black and white image by Fairhurst, of her sitting on a broken armchair on the pavement outside a junk furniture shop; chair disguised, as in Mummem in which hundreds of breasts providing a wonderful upholstery for a hanging seat.

In her latest work The Bunnies are Back, a little more mature, a little more explicit, all involving chairs, and she has moved along to making plaster casts of her friends’ and her own body parts in an acknowledgement that, like it or not, this is who we are. Incidentally, there is a nice parallel with another female artist who has had a lot of attention this summer though exhibitions, Gwen John; they both have had a significant influence but relied on a wide circle of close friends and family for subject matter and practical advice. 

The most complex piece is the climactic This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven of 2018, a car cut in half with the front half more or less intact and the other burnt out. The seats are thrown out but undamaged, of course, but are covered in an intricate white and yellow pattern which turns out to be made of Marlboro Light cigarettes.“When I first started using cigarettes in art it was because I was wondering why people are self-destructive,” she says. “But it’s often destructive things that make us feel most alive”.

Sarah Lucas, Happy Gas, Tate Britain

28 September -14 January

Sarah Lucas, This Jaguar_s Going to Heaven, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Sarah Lucas, Sandwich, 2004- 2020. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

Sarah Lucas, SUGAR, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo Robert Glowacki

Sarah Lucas, Exacto, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City New York

Sarah Lucas, CROSS DORIS, 2019. Private collection

Sarah Lucas, COOL CHICK BABY, 2020. Collection of Alexander V. Petalas

Sarah Lucas, Bunny 1997. Private collection (c) Sarah Lucas

About Author

Simon Tait

Simon Tait, former arts correspondent of The Times, writer on arts and heritage for national newspapers since 1985, president of the Critics’ Circle 2012-14, author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton RA, editor Arts Industry Magazine.

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