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Sarah Lucas HAPPY GAS at Tate Britain Review: 'The tragicomic heart of sex and desire'


Sarah Lucas, Fat, Forty and Flab-ulous, 1990. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gift of the D.Daskalopoulos Collection donated jointly to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas.

As I stood looking at Sarah Lucas’ work Wanker in the Tate Britain, a chair with an automatic arm tossing off ceaselessly — I thought, yes, that would probably work well, and then I realised she had won. Her inane, depressing takes on sexuality often do this. You think it’s naughty, you properly look at it, become compelled by it, and then hate yourself for it.

This exhibition, made up of new works mainly from the last decade or so, is another reminder of why Lucas deserves to retain the notoriety that first made her famous. She simply cannot be boring. The first room features more wanking, more penises, and more two-page spreads from the Daily Star than many of the retired luvvies, that perused the place aghast whilst I was there, had likely ever seen before. Her sculptures, which embrace their gimmicky-ness and potential status as contraptions, are still unlike much else in contemporary art due to their unmistakably British, working class sense of humour. Depressingly, this continues to make her unique on the art scene.

The second room, of only four, was a huge survey of her recent sculptures of inflated, fleshy, sausagey female figures without heads or even arms, swirled around chairs. This room’s works have so many textures that their shapes, resembling stuffed tights, seem impossibly squidgy considering they’re made of chrome, bronze, or concrete.

Sarah Lucas, SUGAR, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London. © Sarah Lucas

They are also impossible to look at without getting a creeping sense that you’re perving. There is nothing that doesn’t lead to a breast or a bum or a painted on vagina. This skewers the male gaze so well that you feel guilty for liking them so much — or I did, anyway. God knows what that means.

The final room is a memorial to that long gone tradition of smoking, a huge space filled with plaster casts of people below the waist with cigarettes placed indecently into them. In the centre of the space stands This Jaguar's Going to Heaven, a car severed in half and adorned with what must be thousands of pounds worth of cigarettes — a smart move given that they’ll double in price year on year now, thanks to Rish!. In fifty years’ time, the fags alone will cost more than the artwork.

Sarah Lucas This Jaguar's Going to Heaven, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. © Sarah Lucas

Lucas’ place atop the throne of indecency is as secure as ever after this exhibition which, if more sedate than her most famous work in the 90s, has lost none of its spirit or impact. Other YBAs have descended into parody (Hirst) or altruism (Emin), but Lucas was never going to settle for anything less than the same. Her comments on the incessant sexualisation of the female body by our cultural norms are piercing, hilarious, and troubling. It says a lot about her work's directness that the Tate's usual parody-art-speak doesn't bother to try and sedate or explain Lucas in this exhibition; you are staring, captivated, and know exactly what's being done to you.

How refreshing it is to see an artist who knows exactly where they want to go and has stuck at it, relentlessly fucking with everyone. Including me, with my prissy, guilt-ridden staring. Nobody gets to the tragicomic heart of sex and desire like Sarah Lucas — a must see.

Sarah Lucas, HAPPY GAS is on at the Tate Britain until 14 January 2024. Under 25s go for £5.