The Young British Artists (YBAs) made their name with shocking artworks. Alongside Hirst and Emin, Sarah Lucas wasn’t a fan of subtlety either. Much of her work on show in this mid-career retrospective contains either allusions to, or features, sexually explicit imagery — this is not one for children.
Some of her work goes for the cheeky approach such as two eggs and a banana skin on a soiled mattress representing female genitalia, a zeppelin whose phallic shape is made obvious by an attached mechanical hand performing a masturbatory action, and a concrete set of hands making an obscene gesture. Herein lies the conundrum, it’s all too obvious and designed to be shocking thus cheapening its impact.
Adjacent to these works are blown up newspaper pages highlighting the misogynistic attitudes of some tabloid papers towards women. But it’s hard to take this work with the seriousness it deserves, when it’s surrounded by the aforementioned light-hearted sculptures.
In some pieces, Lucas does exercise some subtlety and these are the most engaging. A Calder-like mobile with concrete attachments plays on our perceptions of what’s solid, and a self portrait made of cigarettes features the artist in a contemplative pose as if pondering her choice of lifestyle. A striking coffin made of neon lights is titled ‘new religion’, suggesting that consumerist must-buy culture is draining the life out of us.
Though it’s the sexually charged art that dominates this exhibition, Lucas is at her most powerful when exercising restraint and subtlety.
Sarah Lucas is on at Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High St, E1 7QX until 15 December. Admission is free.