WINNER OF ART & CULTURE ART CRITICISM PRIZE VOLUME VI ANNOUNCED:
We are delighted to announce that Tom Gilliver, with his exceptional review of Sarah Lucas: Ordinary Things at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, is the Winner of Volume VI of the Art & Culture Art Criticism Prize.
Mark Rappolt, Editor of Art Review and Judge commented:
Art criticism these days normally falls between two poles – clever, but inaccessible or accessible but dumb. Whilst there were a number of very good entries to the prize, the Sarah Lucas review was a clear winner. In part because it managed the tricky task of navigating between those two poles, offering intelligent insights without losing track of the need to communicate in a comprehensible manner, to take a reader with you. Furthermore, the review managed the equally tricksy task of tackling the work of an artist about whom so much has been written, absorbing it, digesting it and adding thoughts of their own and, as interestingly, writing a general commentary on the artist’s works without forgetting the specific context of the show being reviewed.
Winner: Review by Tom Gilliver
Sarah Lucas: Ordinary Things
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
19 July - 21 October 2012
Click HERE for more information about the exhibition.
We use the word thing as lazy shorthand for an object so familiar, so ready-to-hand, that its name is no longer needed, half-forgotten. Yet we also use it when something stops working or behaves unexpectedly, confronting us with its obdurate otherness: it becomes a stupid thing. These paradoxical connotations, suggesting both intimacy and alienation, make Ordinary Things a brilliantly resonant title for this exhibition, which invites us to see how familiarity can itself be a kind of estrangement.
Sarah Lucas rose to prominence as one of the young British artists of the 1990s, exhibiting in the landmark shows Freeze (1988) and Sensation (1997). Whilst Lucas shares her classmates’ bravado and outspokenness, she has never treated sensationalism as an end in itself; rather, her work is celebrated for its unflinching and playful interventions in sexual politics and gender identity. Hence Ordinary Things, which — in the curators’ words — ‘turns to the sculptural rather than the sensational’. Spanning nearly twenty years of Lucas’s career, the exhibition presents a concise and compelling interpretation of her sustained engagement with the art of sculpture. Both materials and subjects are insistently, almost polemically, ordinary: concrete depicts a courgette, plaster a penis; nylon tights stand for skin, and breezeblocks serve for plinths.
Lucas’s sculptural intelligence is at its most incisive in the series NUDS (2009-10), which are made from women’s tights stuffed with fluff and stiffened by wire, then shaped into contorted, introverted knots. Normally used to conceal flesh, tights here represent and mimic it. With the weight of limbs and the translucency of intestines, these forms are viscerally human, enacting domestic dramas of desire, self-involvement, suffocation, companionship. These pasty bodies, bulging with cellulite, are a far cry from the airbrushed supermodel or the painter’s muse. The dark lines in the stuffing seem to point out the likeness between spider veins and marble, phrasing a beautifully succinct question about the difference between hypostatised ‘beauty’ and reality.
In fact, both the success and the difficulty of Lucas’s sculptural grammar lie in the fact that formal concerns can never be divided from political and theoretical enquiry. This is most evident in her obsession with male genitalia, which should perhaps be taken as a riposte to the millennia-long objectification of the female nude. Sometimes the penises function as comic props, as in Tree Nob (2010), where a plaster phallus is positioned like a fungus on a stump. This satirical whimsy does not take any precise target in its sights; rather, it casts a sceptical glance at the intimacy between pastoralism and patriarchy. Yet there is also a perverse and engrossing beauty to be found in sculptures such as Swan (2008), whose elegant white neck proves, on closer inspection, to be a plaster cast of (yet another) penis. Walking back out of the exhibition into the street, it takes hours to get out of the habit of seeing phallic imagery everywhere: and this must surely count as a success.
What makes Lucas’s work so compelling is its breadth and complexity of feeling, ranging from evasive to confrontational, louche to regretful, wry to tragic. The final room of the exhibition presents a series of life-size objects cast in concrete — courgette, gourd, pie, marrow. They are stubbornly inedible, and, as phallic substitutes, cold and unalluring. These objects are attended by a sense of tragedy stretching back to the myth of Tantalus: they conjure the idea of desire, but are unable to arouse or satisfy it. Yet they also playfully pose a question about the rhetoric of observation. If life drawing is an attempt to see what things really look like, then to make a plaster penis or a concrete pie is a perfectionist’s take on still life: an ideal mimesis. These sculptures are thus carefully balanced on the edge of interpretability: they refuse to give enough away for us feel and think coherently about their meaning.
By highlighting Lucas’s close engagement with artistic tradition, Ordinary Things partly reminds us that the No-Longer-So-Young-British-Artists may not have strayed so far from their Modernist roots as is popularly assumed. Lucas apparently took her inspiration for the title NUDS from her mother’s expression ‘in the nuddy’. Thus both the Classical nude and a personal dialect are ambiguously honoured as pass-me-down idioms, and the NUDS can be seen as a child’s mangled mispronunciation of her inheritance. In all of these senses, Ordinary Things is about disconnection and reconnection. We are invited to return to over-familiar traditions, objects and discourses — and to Lucas’s work itself — with fresh and critical eyes.