Sarah Lucas is of course best known for her shock art – her ‘Penis Nailed to a Board’ (1991), her ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ (1992), her ‘Au Naturel’ (1994) (mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges, cucumber), her wanking machines, her Bunnies (those sad stuffed tights flopping over chairs) or, more recently, her NUDS with their hideous entwined limbs and anuses. They constitute her cheerfully crude, two-fingered riposte to pornography – ‘You think sex is glamorous? Well have a look at this!’ I still remember how shocked I was the first time I saw ‘Bitch’ (l994) – the t-shirt stretched over a table with melons for breasts, and a smoked fish in lieu of a fanny. There’s a more recent one too, ‘Galaxia’ (2011), with a set of teeth in the vagina, that still makes me shudder. She has a great power to shock, and loves to do so, but I think there’s another side to her which is sometimes overlooked and that’s why I’ve chosen this portrait as my favourite.
‘Self Portrait with Cigarettes’ (2000) is atypical of Lucas’s work because it is not grungy, is not scabrously witty or angrily feminist, and, of course, is not sculpture. Instead it is a supremely elegant, simple, self-portrait that relies entirely on line drawing to convey a likeness (a very good likeness too). In that respect it reminds me of some of Matisse’s drawings, or, perhaps even more, of Jean Cocteau. It has no shading and very little colour – only the brown wrapping paper background, the whiteness of the cigarettes punctuated here and there by the pale orange of their filters. I only noticed recently, in her Whitechapel show, the consistency and also the restriction of her palette – she always prefers to work in shades of brown and grey and rarely relies on eye-catching colour.
The other thing I love about this work, as a lifelong smoker myself, is that the lines are drawn in cigarettes. Someone should do a thesis (perhaps they already have?) on the use of cigarettes in contemporary art, but Sarah Lucas was definitely a pioneer. Damien Hirst has used cigarettes too, but more as stubs in ashtrays, with heavy-handed allusions to pollution and death. Sarah is not oblivious to the death connection, of course, but she also appreciates the beauty of cigarettes as objects, especially the virgin tubes, unsullied by saliva, fresh from the Marlboro packet. Her big fag period was in the early noughties when she was trying to give up. In her frantic displacement activity, she covered almost everything she could find with cigarettes – garden gnomes, lifejackets, a china cockerel, even a crucified Jesus (‘Christ, You Know It Ain’t Easy’, (2003)). I remember once watching her sticking cigarettes on a lifejacket, which she did with incredible care and neatness. I had not previously appreciated the difficulty of working with cigarettes, especially when going round corners, but it seemed to require as much delicacy as, say, carving a Japanese netsuke or a ship in a bottle. So I admire the sheer craftsmanship of ‘Self Portrait with Cigarettes’ as well as all its other virtues.
This is a very quiet portrait by Sarah Lucas’s standards. Her early photographic self-portraits often had a sexual undertow and showed her in angry, confrontational mode, eating a banana, straddling a lavatory or hefting a huge fish. Her image was always deliberately androgynous; she liked to present herself as a street urchin, wearing a man’s jacket, jeans and boots, often drinking beer from the bottle, looking as if she was ready for a fight. She once told Damien Hirst that when she started making self-portraits in the l990s, “I felt that I was striking a blow against vanity. My own, for a start. I’m very much like a sculpture I might make. Pared down. No make-up. No hairdo. Wearing the most ordinary, often quite battered, gear. It was handy too, as I couldn’t afford anything fancy at the time. And actually, I’ve never liked feeling dressed up.”
And she liked looking boyish, she explained in an interview at the Portikus Frankfurt in l996, because “What I’m after is… sexiness with a kind of sexual ambiguity, because I don’t look particularly feminine… There is something interesting in that grey area.” But she also said that her tough image was “definitely a posture” and not particularly true to life. People who met her, especially abroad, always said she didn’t seem nearly as aggressive as she seemed in her art, but, she reminded them: “The work isn’t me. It’s fictional.”
But in this portrait she seems to have let her guard down and presented her softer, more feminine, side. She looks pensive, perhaps a bit melancholy, even vulnerable. Although she is wearing a man’s jacket, there is no question that she is a woman, perhaps even thinking girlie thoughts. It is how I imagine she looks when she is alone in a room, not going out to do battle with the world.
I realise that in choosing ‘Self Portrait with Cigarettes’ I’ve selected probably the tamest of Sarah Lucas’s works – almost the only one that could hang in a polite drawing room without frightening the horses. I fear that this is an indictment of me: I am too old, too cautious, too bourgeois, to go for the full Sarah. But, given that the full Sarah is so well known and highly acclaimed, I want to remind everyone that she does have a quieter, less confrontational, side – one marked by elegance, restraint, and great formal control. There is always the danger with shock art that it can lose its shock value with time. Who now reels back in horror at Duchamp’s urinal? But this self-portrait, I feel, is timeless. And also – dare I use the word without Sarah killing me? – beautiful.
(reproduced courtesy of HIX magazine) www.hixrestaurants.co.uk