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Work / Art

“I’m totally on the side of accident in art”: Sarah Lucas, playful and plain-speaking

“I can remember being at college and thinking, I’d like to make something really beautiful one day,” said Sarah Lucas last week. Skilled as she is when it comes to marrying art and robust innuendo, Lucas made the British Pavilion the most visited at last year’s Venice Biennale with her bawdy, custard-yellow, installation I Scream Daddio, but beauty is not always on the agenda. For the Biennale, phallic resin sculptures thrusted upwards and plaster casts of friends and muses’ lower halves were seen in various states of repose, unlit cigarettes stuck in bums and vaginas, all against bright yellow walls.

When thinking of what she would do with the pavilion, Lucas said the yellow drawing room in the Sir John Soane’s Museum was somewhere in the back of her mind. Now, fittingly, three of her muse sculptures have taken up residence in the space. Last Tuesday, in conversation with curator and writer James Putman and director of the Somerset House Trust, Jonathan Reekie in the nearby Royal College of Surgeons, Lucas touched on her choice of yellow – Banana Dream – saying it was loosely tied to the eggs that have been a recurring theme in her work.

As a young woman, the one-time YBA photographed herself with two fried eggs slapped on her breasts. For Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, she returned to the gallery every day to fry fresh eggs, and photographs shown the other night showed a scaled model of the British Pavilion filled with runny egg yolks.

“But it’s not really an egg-yellow, is it?” someone in the audience said of the painted walls. “It almost radiates!” Taking this pedantic outburst squarely on the chin, Lucas described the challenge of sifting through paint samples in her Suffolk studio mid-winter, and then seeing the chosen shade in the suffused Venice light. Later, someone asked if she agreed her work was about “feminine lack” – lack being a concept championed by psychoanalysis that, in its simplest terms, ties desire to neurosis. It made me think, why are pretension or pedanticism the knee-jerk responses when it comes to contemporary art?

“People often seem to assume, especially with my self-portraits, that I’ve set out to be purposefully masculine, and I don’t think I have,” she explained. “I just think I have never tried to be purposefully feminine. There are these codes about what it means to be masculine and what it means to be feminine which we don’t interrogate enough. I’m curious and I suppose I just play with that.”

One of Lucas’ most refreshing and admirable qualities is her frankness, apparent as much in her manner as in her often plain-speaking art. To dress it up and weight it down in theory does a disservice to the spirit in which much of her work is made. “I like to work immediately,” she said. “Often the flippant things are more powerful.”

Objects in her sculptural arrangements are often taken straight from her home, be it a table or even her own mattress in an earlier piece. “I didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night,” she said, the realisation only dawning on her once the piece was assembled. Lucas, as serious about her work as she may be, refrains from taking herself too seriously and maintains a wicked sense of humour. Perhaps people forget she has already turned down two Turner prize nominations.

Toward the end of the evening, I asked her how she open she is to the idea of accident in her work. “I’m totally on the side of accident in art,” she said. “You have to premeditate to an extent but I think you need to be available to what happens. The best part isn’t always what you intended.”

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Sarah Lucas: Yoko, photo by Graeme Robertson. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sir John Soaneʼs Museum.

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Sarah Lucas: Pauline, photo by Graeme Robertson. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sir John Soaneʼs Museum.

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Sarah Lucas: Power in Woman, photo by Graeme Robertson. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sir John Soaneʼs Museum.

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Sarah Lucas: Yoko, photo by Graeme Robertson. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sir John Soaneʼs Museum.