Sarah Lucas - Biography and Legacy
British Sculptor, Photographer, Installation and Performance Artist
London, United Kingdom
Biography of Sarah Lucas
The third of four siblings (two brothers and a sister), Lucas was born in 1962. Her father was a milkman and her mother was a cleaner and part-time gardener. The Lucas family lived on a council estate near the Holloway Road in North London. At the suggestion that she was an unhappy child, Lucas recalled: "I was very reserved when I was a little kid, I didn't even speak till I was three. So I'd find a corner somewhere and just make things, to keep myself company".
Lucas was a self-proclaimed tomboy, playing out on the street with local children (mostly boys), learning to swear without really understanding what the swearwords meant. She has spoken since of the political implications of swearing and how "whole classes of people had language stacked against them". Speaking of her formative years, art critic Gilda Williams has spoken of how Lucas's work "seems forever suspended in [...] the brief instance hinged between childhood and adolescence [...] arrested in the short space of puberty, in that giggly, boy crazy (or girl-crazy) period when almost any object [...] trigger squeals of embarrassed giggling".
Lucas has said that her mother wouldn't allow her to do any homework on the thinking that the time she spent at school should be enough of an education. She left school at 16 with no qualifications, stating that she "bummed around for a couple of years" and survived on part time jobs and unemployment benefit. Reacting to an abortion at 17, Lucas hitchhiked around Europe for a year with a boyfriend while trying to work out what she would like to do with her life. On her return, her mother got her a job in a play centre where she was working. Once there, she spoke with a colleague who had gone to art college and she realised that this was path she might follow.
Early Training and Work
Having attended the Working Men's College in 1982, Lucas put together a portfolio which secured her a place on a foundation course at the London College of Printing in 1983. As a fine Art undergraduate, she studied at Goldsmith College between 1984 and 1987 where she met many fellow artists who would form the Young British Artists (YBA) movement, including Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Gillian Wearing and Gary Hume. She entered into personal relationships with Hume and Fairhurst, the latter ending in a tragedy that would affect Lucas's outlook on life. Following her graduation, she contributed to Hirst's famous Freeze exhibition in a London Port Authority Building in Docklands. Many of the artists showing at Freeze became associated with the YBAs whose work was promoted by advertising guru and art collector Charles Saatchi. The journalist Lynn Barber observed that "at college, the boys all treated [Lucas] as an equal and respected her work. But after college, she noticed, the boys were all quickly wooed by galleries and fêted by collectors, while she was only invited to things as Gary Hume's plus one". Lucas has spoken frequently of her anger about that situation.
In 1990 Lucas met art director Sadie Coles, who was at that time working for the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, and would later represent Lucas through her own commercial gallery in London. At this time Lucas became strongly influenced by the writing of Dworkin and her radical feminist position on patriarchy: attacking the dominance of "blokey" art that she believed was "actually a construct". Her sculpture Penis Nailed to a Board soon followed and her first solo exhibition at City Racing Gallery brought her recognition in her own right. In fact Lucas describes how success came after she returned to making things as she did, "when I was little, just making things, because I always did, to keep myself company. I think that sort of continues - the making things to keep yourself company".
In 1993, and inspired by Vivian Westwood and Michael McLaren's 1970s shop Let it Rock, Lucas and fellow YBA Tracy Emin set up a temporary shop (called "The Shop") at 103 Bethnal Green Road, London. Though their friendship proved to be rather short lived, Lucas and Emin called themselves "The Birds" and promoted their shop by handing out business cards at parties. The pair sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts hand-painted with slogans such as "Love Come" and "Fucking Useless" and ashtrays with Damien Hirst's face pasted to them. Critic Matthew Collings noted that "It was a certain kind of titillation the shop offered, sexual but also hopeless, destructive, foolish, funny, sad". When, after just six months, the shop went out of business, the pair went their separate ways and Lucas returned to making photography and sculpture.
Lucas's first solo commercial exhibition with Sadie Coles, Bunny Gets Snookered in 1997, was a great success and paved the way for her works Sod you Gits (1991), Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992) and Pauline Bunny (1997) to be included in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy later in 1997. Journalist Lynn Barber has said that, much of Lucas' early work, "seemed - not scary, exactly, because it was too witty for that - but fuelled by anger; anger against pornography and men's casual denigration of women though Lucas responded to that suggestion by saying she was more "annoyed than angry". Nevertheless, Lucas became known for partying hard at places like the Groucho Club, and Colony Rooms in Soho, London, and for her "unabashedly all-balls-out, rock 'n' roll" attitude. Lucas herself confessed to being an aggressive drunk: "I had such an axe to grind and I was annoyed. I was furious with all these blokes with their one-line ideas getting successful around me". However, speaking later of her association with the YBAs, Lucas said, "At the time, you were struggling in such an awful, egocentric way that you couldn't appreciate how amazing it was. I think most of us, all of us, now think, 'Fuck, that was incredible'".
By 1998 - by which time her works were selling for six figure sums at auction - Lucas decided to start working one day a week at the Colony Rooms, a famous bar (frequented previously by the likes of Francis Bacon) in London's Soho (a district once thought of the "home of British bohemia"). Of this she said, "for years and years I did work in bars, and it didn't make me feel in a lowly position. It gave me quite a strong sense of myself, in fact. I've never believed in those notions that dignity lives in status or in how much money you've got. It's good to remind yourself".
Lucas doesn't have an assistant, has never had a studio, and prefers to work from home with available materials. Having achieved a level of financial security, her status has allowed her to work intermittently and at her own pace rather than under the pressure of deadlines. In a recent work, Lucas cast her partner Julien Simmons's penis repeatedly for an artwork called Penetralia, describing the process as "playing around" and her "hands doing it [the art] more than [her] head".
In an attempt to avoid the chaos of the metropolitan art scene, Lucas moved to Suffolk and stopped reading art magazines and newspapers. Her "retreat" allowed her to maintain connections with friends, fellow artists and to focus on her work. She currently lives with Simmons (in a converted cottage previously owned by Benjamin Britten), continuing a pattern of dating fellow artists. Her ex-boyfriend, collaborator, and fellow Goldsmiths graduate Angus Fairhurst, tragically committed suicide in 2008 and she has spoken of having to live with the grief of that tragedy and also her own struggles with depression. In an interview with writer Aida Edemariam, she put Fairhurst's death down to the sudden explosion of the YBA generation and the pressures of fame and fortune that followed: "I do have doubts", she said, "and when I'm putting a show together, and the day goes badly, I'm thinking this is how he must have felt".
The Legacy of Sarah Lucas
Even though many in the art world would regard the rise of the YBAs with mixed blessings - reprioritizing contemporary art as commerce, through artworks that more often than not functioned as in jokes and one-liners did not meet with universal approval - the commercial fortunes of Lucas and her peers caused seismic industry-wide waves that have yet to be repeated. Writer and Journalist Charlotte Higgins described how "The YBAs brought great change to the British art world. Tate Modern, Frieze art fair, the mushrooming of contemporary art galleries around the country, the massive expansion of the UK art market - all [of which] were unthinkable when Lucas, Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk et al graduated in the late 1980s".
Journalist Christina Patterson has added that, unlike many of the YBAs, Lucas "probably has had the most enduring influence of her 'Freeze' and YBA generation, moving beyond those associations to develop an ambitious and enduring contemporary sculptural practice". Damien Hirst, who has bought all of Lucas's early pieces from Charles Saatchi, and is probably her biggest collector, described Lucas as "the greatest artist I know [and] out there stripped to the mast like Turner in the storm, making excellent pieces over and over again". Indeed, while many of her YBA colleagues have suffered a downturn in their artistic fortunes, Lucas seems to have gone from strength-to-strength following her acclaimed solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2013 and her triumphant pavilion showing at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Journalist Deborah Orr summed up her current output thus: "it is easy to see that Sarah's work has the very qualities that people crave currently, post [financial] crash, the most simple authenticity [and] sheer talent for expression".