This year, from March to September, London’s National Portrait Gallery is presenting a set of twelve self-portraits by Sarah Lucas. From the NPG permanent collection, this series of photographs was created between 1990 and 1998.
Lucas is an adventurous British artist who sculpts, photographs and arranges objects with a soulful logic of her own. A clarion sense of exploration continues to thrive in her work, which has always been a conceptual stab at the status quo of gender and sexuality. Often described as androgynous or masculine (I prefer ‘liberated’), these earlier portraits, show Lucas working with photography in a style very candidly vulnerable but invincibly female.
A larger study of identity without being autobiographical, this series was meant to be shown alongside sculptural works. The language of visual puns challenge stereotypical representations of gender and sexuality in tabloid culture and pornography. The quotidien aesthetic (cup of tea, cigarettes, toilet) are typical of the everyday objects she charges and tweaks on a regular basis.
Lucas’s work highlights perception and desire in private and public spheres of intimacy. In April of this year, Lucas was kind enough to briefly revisit these portraits and talk a bit about these iconic works and the time in which they were created.
What follows is an unedited interview with the artist.
Patricia: Visceral, immediate, complete—that is how I perceive your photographic work. Irreverent and honest, infused with the necessary attitude. Do you also find it annoying how common civility is practiced to exclude fierce clarity? Your work magnifies that space for me, so much.
Sarah Lucas: The pictures of myself weren’t very serious initially. I mean I didn’t have any expectations. Something about the image of me with the banana, which was the first one, struck me as powerful. Because I wasn’t a babe.
I hadn’t really had an objective look at my effect until then. Being myself was just a necessity. By ‘common civility’ I presume you to mean convention, which is everything that’s visible/how it is. One can be on the edge of it I suppose, but over the edge and you don’t exist. Well I think it’s worth persevering with perceiving the edges. Certainly how it is is mostly ridiculous.
Oh yes, I did mean convention. How do you feel now about the self-portraits at the NPG?
I could say, they’re like a cardboard cut-out of me functioning in the outside world, at least the art world, as me. And that’s probably just as well.
I read an interview by Carl Freeman for Frieze Magazine in which you expressed: “A dick is present, and masculinity is defined in terms of being present, being an artist is a macho activity because it deals entirely with what is present.” What is it about woman-ness that means absence? Are breasts not as present as any pair of testicles?
Well, at the time I was probably reading a lot of Freud. Clearly we’re all here. And clearly gender is an absolute difference. That might seem silly, but it’s the main one.
You have been described as having a macho style. When a woman exercises her personality to the max—regardless if it is ultra femme, butch major or in between—I see it as statement of liberation. Of making oneself free from social constraints and just plowing on through life in the best way possible. Personally, it irks me when women who reshape femininity in non-femme ways get compared to men, rather than initiating dialogue about a separate space.
I’ve never felt or endeavoured to be especially masculine. I simply eschewed some of the trappings of femininity, which didn’t suit me anyway and which I frankly wasn’t about to use my own person to declare. At the time this stance seemed relatively less ridiculous, of me, than it does now, with the trend for plastic surgery, make-overs etc., all towards a common goal of how it’s desirable to look. Still doesn’t suit me.
What are you excited about producing now?
In July I’m doing an exhibition at Kunstalle Krems with the Gelatin guys and Hieronymus Bosch. We’ll make the whole show on site.
Let us know one thing, just something that has moved you recently.
I’ve just read 2666 by Roberto Bolano.