Last week two very different art forms evoked similar responses in me: cringe, fascination, laughter, discomfort as well as leaving lasting impressions.
Sarah Lucas and Gareth Brookes address our obsession with the physical stuff of sex with all its lack of grace and leakage.
As we awkwardly navigated our way around Sarah Lucas’s SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble at the Whitechapel Gallery it was as if she was accompanying us, her self portrait photographs lending the exhibition an autobiographical aspect.
Gareth Brookes has produced a graphic novel, The Black Project, (Myriad Editions, 2013) The imagery throughout is from embroidered pieces and lino cut prints. It is an unsettling story, presented as fiction that also suggests being informed by autobiography.
In Lucas’s work there is a sense of the immediate – the throwaway laddish gestures and the jokes. We recognize these and as we walk around the show, we are perhaps reminded of the relentlessness of the innuendos and signs that surround us in our world, as in this exhibition.
Brookes’ work is the story of an adolescent boy, Richard, grappling with his burgeoning sexual urges, through the disturbingly painstaking making of dolls – sex dolls. He experiments to create vaginas for each doll that he can put his penis into as he lies on top of her, so it will feel as he imagines it ought to. It is this last facet that makes the book so brilliantly excrutiating. He takes pairs of his mother’s tights and fills them with old socks to form the doll’s legs. He does not consider the objects as dolls but as his girlfriends. He talks to them each night. They are objects though. Lucas also has pieces made from stuffed tights. Near the entrance is a polyurethane resin toilet bowl on a plinth with a stuffed tights sculpture alongside. The human ness of the reference to piles of excrement or intestines is obvious but it is also a nod to Marcel Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois. Sited at the entrance to the space, it contextualizes the exhibition.
Lucas has created sex dolls too. Objects. I might be shy but I’m still a pig (2000) is two hams connected with a pair of knickers and positioned with all their oozing traces on a mattress. We read it as a human woman and as a piece of meat. We humans really are animals aren’t we. We secrete, we issue discharge, it’s what we do, never more than during sex. And it’s all so unbearable and funny. The ham legs could easily have appeared in Brookes’ Richard’s experiments if he’d had access to ham, instead he is limited to the stuff he finds in his grandad’s shed, bits of rubber tubing, some false teeth, a lady’s wig!
Both Lucas and Brookes make use of the obvious and the throwaway. Lucas turns everyday objects into phallic symbols and Brookes reminds us that many of us will have made our own dolls or guys, it’s not as odd as it may appear. No more than the strange rituals around bonfire night. My favourite part of his book is…*skip this bit if you haven’t read the book* when Richard’s father discovers his latest “girlfriend” doll under his bed and Richard explains it as an entry for the school guy competition. His doll wins and Richard, devastated, feigns delight at watching her burn at the stake.
Included in Lucas’s exhibition are cement-based pieces, castes of the stuffed tights from cement and also from bronze. The quick and obvious gestures become more fixed, produced with a slower deliberation and process. Cement benches are formed from square panels. Within each panel, marks of the natural setting of the cement are visible, in this context they become stains. We may react to sex with quick throwaway comments and jokes, yet there are ingrained attitudes to sex at work within our cultural institutions, rigid and hard, like cement.
Throughout The Black Project one cannot help but be distracted by the amount of time Brookes has put into stitching and printing to create the artwork for this book. It is a book of process, slow and ongoing…like the process of growing up.
As I walked around the Lucas show, I heard some art students discuss with world weary cynicism how really Lucas has overdone all this sort of thing now. I didn’t butt in, but I didn’t agree as I looked at an enormous photo collage, of what looked like a pizza base covering one wall. Superimposed on top were little balls made from photos of end-of-penises. This is the earliest work in the show, 1989…ages ago…but how often are penises of any kind seen in public art galleries? yet so many art exhibitions have breasts or vaginas lurking about somewhere.
SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble
2 October-15 December 2013