When I started taking notice of the art world in the early 1990’s, Cool Britannia and the Young British Artists had hit the scene.  Disapprove all you traditionalists, but this was my introduction to art and I found it rebellious and exciting, and it drew me in to everything that came before and has come after.   So how could I miss the laugh-out-loud, shocking, human and feminist show by Sarah Lucas at Tate Britain, as an after-Christmas lift.  

Occupying four giant rooms, encased in huge photographs, it wasn’t a retrospective as such, and forget the mothballs and nostalgia.  Instead she had used some past work, combined with recent, to create new discussions and it felt fresh.  Clever.  Filled with cigarettes, chairs, swearing, bananas, breeze blocks, tights and toilets and also, of course, herself in Herculean form.  The materials she uses are not traditional art materials, but stuff that is to hand, so that she can be spontaneous.  She says she didn’t intend to put herself in her work,  ‘I just happened to be handy’.

Curated and narrated in her own voice, the themes relate personally.  Although many of her sculptures are humorous and suggestive, they often speak of the intimate, sordid everyday and ultimate self-destructive tragedy of life, as well as class, gender stereotypes, communication and feminism.

“Go away, get a nob, come back, we’ll talk about it.  My Mum had an allotment where she grew vegetables and fruit.  There’s a tradition in England, mostly among men, of growing super large vegetables and showing them off once a year at harvest festival time.  A prize for the person with the biggest.  My mum grew the marrows in our family.  She made the jam too.”  Sarah Lucas

I love that quote.  I am a vegetable grower too.

In the largest room there were two long lines of figures on chairs.  She calls these her ‘Bunnies’ and has been making them for a long time. Made from stuffed tights and sitting in chairs they reminded me of Louise Bourgeois’ use of stockings and textiles to explore memory and the body, but in a more cartoonish, saggy Jessica Rabbit (with shoes), kind of way.  The chairs acted as cradles for the contorted bodies, becoming part of the sculpture (having both arms and legs too).  Some of the textile body forms had been cast in bronze, although I think I prefer the textile ones.

The last room seemed to relate more to Lucas now and there was a sombre atmosphere of ageing and less tee hee humour.  The burnt out cigarette car made me breathe thankfully into my nicotine-free lungs and I skirted around the galleries, back to the relief of the Bunnies and out of the entrance.  

If a man did a show like that it would be shot down. In a woman’s voice it becomes something entirely different and poignant.  It was entertaining but it was also memorable for being much more than entertainment.

Happy Gas, Tate Britain 28 Sept 2023 – 14 January 2024