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‘We’re all secretly embarrassed about something’: Inside the world of artist Sarah Lucas

By Ananda Pellerin, CNN

(CNN) — The world of Sarah Lucas is crowded with body parts. During a career spanning over three decades, the London-born artist has amassed hundreds — if not thousands — of arms, legs, breasts and backsides, mixing irreverence and innuendo to make sculptures, self-portraits, and works on paper that raise eyebrows or illicit giggles while viewers look for deeper meaning.

“Chicken Knickers”, a photo from 1997, is one of over 75 works on display as part of “Happy Gas” a major retrospective of Lucas’ work at the Tate Britain gallery in London. The photo shows the lower half of the artist’s body in white flannel underwear with a raw chicken attached to the front, its rear orifice splayed open. The blown-up image covers an entire wall of the gallery, a giant visual pun about genitalia overlooking the first of four rooms full of uncanny sculptural forms.

How you respond to the work implies something about you as much the art, Lucas said during an interview with CNN on the day of the exhibition preview. “I’m certainly not trying to tell people what to think. It probably depends on what you’re bringing to it; whether you’re secretly embarrassed about something. I mean we all are.”

Lucas first gained recognition as part of the Young British Artists (YBAs), a group of enterprising Goldsmith University students who titillated the art world in the 1990s with their candor and jocularity (imagine a British art-world precursor to MTV stunt show “Jackass”). Fellow YBAs include Tracey Emin, famous for confessional pieces like “My Bed” and Damien Hirst, known for his pop art-like prints and bombastic installations, including a shark hovering in formaldehyde.

Similar to other YBAs from working-class backgrounds, Lucas started out using found objects including toilets, newspapers and chairs, while her work is said to embody a type of Britishness that is bawdy and knowing at once. 1990’s “Fat, Forty and Flab-ulous” is a photocopy of a spread from now defunct Sunday Sport newspaper from the heyday of UK tabloid press. The story follows a husband who supposedly put his wife up for sale because she’d grown too fat, and includes shots of a nearly nude woman in lingerie. (“Happy Gas” is itself a reference to recent British headlines connecting recreational nitrous oxide use with anti-social behavior.)

Like a well-executed joke, Lucas’ work provokes as it draws audiences in, which might have to do with where people encounter it, she says. “If you’re in a gallery situation you become more aware of what you’re thinking.” She’s quick to add that she’s “not just trying to catch people out. It’s nice to get some kind of real reaction; I don’t know if there’s a different word, but you know it’s laughter and emotional. It also has a physical side.”

“Bunnies” is an ongoing series of faceless, anthropomorphic sculptures started by Lucas in the late 1990s, and there are more than 25 of them in the show. An allusion to Playboy Bunnies — waitresses in skimpy outfits who worked at the porn magazine’s former chain of clubs — Lucas’ headless figures are an amalgam of appendages and breasts, first made with stuffed nylons and later with resin, bronze and a mix of materials, often wrapped around or straddling chairs. Early bunnies had listless arms and legs, recent ones are more plump and wear heels. “I got fed up with the legs not ending with feet,” says Lucas, adding that she likes the “cartoonish” addition of colorful shoes.

“I mean, I would never wear those shoes because they would cripple me,” she continues, pointing to her own cartoonishly large — albeit comfortable — pink plastic sandals. “Sometimes making things is a way of having certain things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You know, wishful fulfilment.”

“Fat Doris” dons brown platforms and sits in a fusty patterned lounge chair; “Cool Chick Baby” rests her spike-heeled lace-ups on a tattered velvet club chair; “Cross Doris” has her arms folded in anger — the result of a happy accident. Lucas recalls how she “got fed up” with the partially finished bunny that would became Cross Doris. “I literally threw it across the room,” she says. “I forgot all about her and a few days later, I looked around and she was sitting there doing that.

“Often the best things happen at the corner of your eye or when you’re not really taking notice or something goes wrong,” she concludes. “And that’s why it’s even harder to pin down what it actually means.”

Lucas is reluctant to say whether she’s making a direct statement about gender or the objectification of women with the bunnies or any of her other work. “I’m not doing it on purpose” she says. “But maybe I am. I mean, is it different just because a women made it and not a man? Well probably. People look at women’s work differently just because they’re women.”

The artist is more interested in how her art plays on people’s imaginations; about the relationship between gallery goers and these figures that take on a life of their own. Sometimes, Lucas says, it’s as though the artworks “have an awareness of the viewers, as if they’re looking at you; you feel like that in the interaction with them.”

There are many phalluses in “Happy Gas.” Some made of plaster, others out of fluorescent lights, and a new series of “Tim Toms”, penis-like black bronze cat sculptures peppered throughout the exhibition. “William Hambling” is a concrete gourd big enough to lie on, and whose two companions, “Florian” and “Kevin” are installed on the Tate Britain grounds. When asked about the meaning of the gourds Lucas, who lives in the countryside in Suffolk, insists that the giant pieces are “garden furniture” and nothing more. Really, she says, “they’re just about big veg.”

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“Happy Gas” is on at Tate Britain until January 14, 2024.

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