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Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas at Tate Britain review: this is an intoxicated – and intoxicating – show

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

One of the most enduring of the Young British Artists, Sarah Lucas, now 60, could have rested on her laurels. For her big Tate Britain show, she could have delivered a greatest hits show, one that emphasised her role in the 1990s YBA scene alongside old friend and sometime collaborator Damien Hirst. Instead, with typical, wicked but thoughtful irreverence, Lucas has chosen not to stage a grand retrospective.

Several of her brutally punning, abjectly sexual sculptures from the height of the YBA era are conspicuously absent: no Two Fried Eggs and Kebab (1992) — the titular foodstuffs slapped on a humdrum table to form the most sardonic of reclining nudes — and no Au Naturel (1994), that soiled mattress that featured in the infamous Sensation show in 1997 at the Royal Academy, with sewn-in lewd objects — melons and a bucket for her, oranges and a cucumber for him. The Shop, the anarchic premises she and Tracey Emin ran on the Bethnal Green Road in 1993, goes unmentioned; no archival photographs, no ephemeral souvenirs.

But then Lucas never resorts to the obvious or the orthodox. She treats each exhibition as a work in itself, hoping to imbue everything she does with new meaning. At this fantastic new show at Tate Britain, she has opened out the exhibition spaces into four airy rooms, with what she sees as four (very loose) acts in this drama: early works, newer pieces, the pastoral and the apocalyptic. Wallpaper, often featuring photographic portraits of Lucas, overlooks the sculptures. In the thematic rooms, works from across her career are in productive dialogue; the newest are some of the best here, the older pieces have aged superbly.

The exhibition’s guiding motif is chairs. Lucas has long been alive to their metaphorical possibilities, their everyday significance and their art historical and cultural potency. Chairs can be turned to “other purposes”, she says, from changing light bulbs and propping open doors to a precarious base for sex, rather than just supporting inert bodies. Indeed, in her hands, chairs often are bodies. In The Kiss (2003), a knowing nod to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the same name, two seatless chairs are roughly stacked and crudely tied together with string: the lower one, with a knob and balls decorated with cigarettes, is penetrating the other, which has breasts fashioned from more ciggies.

Lucas was slower than Hirst and others in finding her language, but once she had, she immediately established herself as an unflinching social commentator. One of the earliest sculptures here is The Old Couple (1992), two dusty wooden dining chairs, one with a dildo on its seat, the other with a pair of false teeth. Of course it’s funny and puerile. But it reflects Lucas’s brilliant knack for finding a colloquial British language for the feminist thought she was absorbing, in this case the writer Andrea Dworkin’s reflections on the vulnerability of a penis within a vagina. Dworkin also informed the works that Lucas said were “the beginning of me as we know me”: the blown-up misogynistic Sunday Sport spreads, presented with brutal directness. Turned towards them in the show are two chairs with masturbating arms, one of them hydraulically moving. Much is made of Lucas’s bawdiness, but few artists do disdain better than her.

Bunny, 1997 (Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas)
Bunny, 1997 (Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas)

Equally, darkness and death: Is Suicide Genetic (1996), in the room of early sculptures, is a burnt-out stuffed armchair, its charred springs spewing beneath it, a crash helmet decorated with pristine cigarettes an almost spectral presence within it. Later on, in This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018), more cigarettes decorate the bonnet, wings and seats of a Jaguar car cut in two, its rear a scorched husk. It’s another rejoinder to masculine pride and status, perhaps. But Lucas also identifies cars with lungs, she says, and cigarettes for her are clearly a symbol of both pleasure and destruction — as well as another phallus. The wallpaper here features a sequence of photographs of her smoking, taken by her partner Julian Simmons as she spun in a chair in a deep red room. They’re hazy and woozy and “slightly hellish”, she says.

Part of the power of Lucas’s work is its capacity to hold these multiple meanings. Her Muses are plaster casts of lower halves of friends’ naked bodies, and her own; they’re as tender as she gets, yet they still have fags sticking out of their orifices. Then there are the “bunnies”, initially fashioned from tights stuffed to form limbs and breasts and vulvas, with chairs as an integral element of the sculpture. Now sometimes cast in concrete, resin and bronze, they wrap around, cavort on, lurk within or burst out of the furniture, at once vulnerable and exploited, libidinous and defiant — often within one sculpture, depending on where you’re standing.

The chairs too are sometimes found, sometimes made, many of them concrete casts. There’s a wonderful sculptural fluidity about the whole ensemble, one that takes an abstract delight in form and material, despite the clearly figurative outcomes of Lucas’s experiments. The layers of meaning are complicated by their capped-up, amped up titles: COOL CHICK BABY (a Yoko Ono quote), SUGAR, GODDESS, VENUS, SLAG.

A 36-metre-long room features a marvellous procession of these forms, mostly made in the past few years, as her young self, in those famous shots eating (or fellating) a banana looks on from the wallpaper. It’s one of the best rooms I’ve seen anywhere this year.

 (Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)
(Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)

Although Lucas’s language is among the most distinctive of any recent British artist, there are nods to others. DICK’EAD (2018) is among the more male of the bunny works, with a gargantuan red phallus that undoubtedly evokes Franz West, for whose Tate Modern show a few years ago Lucas designed the plinths. Mumum (2012), a hanging egg chair swamped in nylon breasts, can’t but evoke Louise Bourgeois. There is a surreality, uncanniness and psychological intensity alongside that famous cackling Britishness that aligns Lucas squarely with a European absurdist tradition.

Lucas’s self-portraits play a key role in the narrative here: it’s as if, throughout, different incarnations of her are accompanying her work — and us, as we look at it. In the most complex room of the exhibition, which partly reflects Lucas’s move to rural Suffolk (where concrete marrows installed inside and outside Tate Britain reflect the town-to-country evolution of her knob gags), there’s a neat reflection of this in two framed portraits. In one, a young Lucas looks at us from a chair outside a London bric-a-brac shop; in the other, she sits contentedly amid a field of hay.

So Lucas does marry the new and old but while absolutely harnessing her particular spirit; reflecting aspects of a life’s work to date, but avoiding a common pitfall of retrospectives: seeming like an ominous full stop. I left wanting more, with an abiding feeling of an artist at the height of her powers, loving making art, her ability to provoke us, amuse us and surprise us sharper than ever. The title Happy Gas could not be more apt: this is an intoxicated — and intoxicating — show.

Tate Britain, to January 14; tate.org.uk