Looking back on 2023, one of our favourite exhibitions of the year was Sarah Lucas’s Happy Gas – a delightfully deplorable show that has been amusing visitors to the Tate Britain since back in September.
Lucas’s show offers a fresh take on the retrospective, combining an unexpected selection of old and new artworks from across her 40 year career, in a thoughtful and hilarious exploration of everything that makes us human.
In today’s blog, we’re providing some background on Lucas’ fascinating career, and offering our highlights from this unmissable exhibition.
A Bit of Background
Lucas got her big break as one of the original exhibitors at the 1988 Freeze exhibition that launched the Young British Artists (YBAs).
Freeze opening party, showing (left to right), Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume.
From day one however, Lucas was distinct from her counterparts, in that she was less enamoured with the matters of death, life and murder that preoccupied her classmates, and more intrigued in the gory details of everyday existence, be that sex, the body, bad habits, or the things we hide from others and ourselves.
Today, Lucas is internationally respected for rebellious and witty artworks that call us to question our understanding of gender politics, feminism, class, and what it means to be British.
Red Sky Cah 2018 c/o Sarah Lucas
In Happy Gas, Lucas presents a raucous showcase of her diverse practice, bringing together works that span sculpture, installation and photography dating back to 1991.
The exhibition spans four rooms, separated (loosely) into four acts: early works, newer pieces, the pastoral and the apocalyptic, with every element curated by Lucas, from its personal narration to the plinths that her sculptures sit on.
Displaying the same wicked but thoughtful irreverence that has put her in a class of her own, Lucas has chosen to omit some of the more obvious works from her back catalogue.
Most notable in their absence were Two Fried Eggs and Kebab (1992) — Lucas’s interpretation of a reclining nude, and Au Naturel (1994), the melon and cucumber-adorned mattress that featured in the infamous 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy.
Jumping Right In
Lucas doesn’t care about easing in visitors gently. Rather, the first room of the exhibition immediately confronts you with some of her most bawdy works.
The Old Couple. Sarah Lucas courtesy of Sadie Coles.
One of the first artworks you see is The Old Couple (1992) – a piece featuring two rickety wooden chairs, one adorned with a wax penis, the other a set of false teeth. This artwork is the earliest example of Lucas using chairs in her work. By placing this work at the start of the show, Lucas sets up chairs as the guiding motif for the entire exhibition.
Lucas has always been fascinated by the everyday significance of chairs and their ability to be used for ‘other purposes’ be that propping open doors, changing light bulbs, or as an alternative location for sex.
In her hands, chairs are often used in place of a body, placing suggestive items upon and around them, like the mechanical arm used in Wanker (1999), and leaving the observer to fill in the narrative for themselves.
Sarah Lucas @ Tate Britain
Adorning the walls of the first room are Fat, Forty and Flab-ulous, Sod You Gits and Pairfect Match – blown up pages from newspapers of the early 1990s that feature overly-sexual tabloid fodder that would never be allowed nowadays.
By doing nothing to these articles other than make them bigger, Lucas draws attention to the misogyny of the tabloid press. By placing Wanker opposite these artworks, Lucas makes us laugh, while also showing her disdain for this type of ‘reporting’.
In the second room, visitors are ushered around a 40ft catwalk of Lucas’s ‘Bunnies’. Each faceless sculpture, titled things like Slag, Honey Pie and Sex Bomb, is made from stuffed tights, wire, bronze and raw concrete.
Faceless, sprouting multiple breasts, tying themselves in knots, or just plain exhausted, these sculptures evoke the constant acrobatics women are forced to perform to conform to all society expects from them.
Brilliantly, Lucas’s sculptures are watched over by Eating a Banana (1990), floor to ceiling black and white photographs of Lucas devouring the suggestive fruit.
The third room of the exhibition is home to more recent works including William Hambling (2022), an enormous cast-concrete marrow, which matches the pair, Florian and Kevin (2013), which can be found on the lawn outside the museum.
Lucas’s concrete marrows are another motif seen across her oeuvre. In fact, these same phallic marrows can be seen in the Lucas artwork we’re releasing as part of Enter Gallery’s Rare Print Show on Friday 26th January.
Perceval was created in 2006, especially for Damien Hirst’s show and boxset, In the Darkest Hour There May Be Light.
Perceval by Sarah Lucas
The third room is also home to some of the exhibition’s most curious works, from a gigantic resin sandwich to Mumum (2012), an egg-shaped chair entirely covered in soft stuffed tights that resemble breasts, and Sadie (2015), a cast of the lower half of a female body sat astride a large pipe.
The final room has a hellish quality, assisted by the photographs adorning the walls of Lucas sat in a dark red room, spinning on a chair while smoking.
Cigarettes are of course another motif we’ve seen Lucas revisit time and again, using them as a symbol of pleasure and destruction, whether she’s placing them emerging from bodily orifices, or as a material to craft her sculptures.
The central work in this final room is This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018), a burnt out car, broken in two, crafted from cigarettes.
The piece is intended as an imitation of a smoker’s death, and as with much of her work, another comeback to notions of masculine pride and status.
In summary, Happy Gas is a riotous exhibition which exposes and laughs at the realities of the world that we live in. While retrospectives can all too often feel like a full stop on the end of an artist’s career, in this instance, you leave exhilarated at having experienced the work of an artist at the peak of her career, and excited to see what she comes up with next.
Happy Gas has now entered its final month. Be sure to catch it before it closes on January 14th 2024.
Perceval by Sarah Lucas will be on display at 2024 Rare Print Show. Join us at the Private view on Friday 26th January - RSVP here to secure your spot