Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Sarah Lucas: Penetralia

Posted in Reviews by va801km on October 27, 2008

Sarah Lucas: Penetralia

Sarah Lucas, doyenne of the genitalia gag in the YBA era, seems to have lost none of her preoccupation with tackle but here presents something more complex, subtle and ambiguous than the visual punchlines which made her famous.

The presentation is sombre, monochrome, all directional lighting and large dark plinths – the effect more natural history museum than commercial gallery. Spindly pale forms cast dramatic shadows; from a distance they look like bone formations or bleached driftwood. Then you realise what you’re looking at. Each branching form has a penis grafted onto it, incongruous and drolly melancholic. Other body parts also feature; through a hole in a piece of tree bark emerges a white plaster finger, inviting you to read it as a female groin playing at (or poking fun at – literally) masculinity; but most of the sculptures are just hybrids of branch-or-bone forms and male members.

The repetition and the presentation give the sense of a collector’s cabinet of found things, dead and ossified, offered up for examination. They are fetish objects, but instead of embodying a substitute for the ‘absent penis’ they present it back in a starkly castrated form. It returns as its own repressed, the ghost of Freudian paternalistic fears.

Another easy reading would be a feminist one: the penises are presented as lifeless and powerless relics, or insensate organic forms – perhaps critical partner pieces to some of Lucas’ earlier works, such as ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ and ‘Bunny’ which commented wryly on the objectification of the female body.

But fetish objects are also invested with a mystical and psychological power, and this is highlighted in the weighty coffee-table book by Lucas and her partner Julian Simmons, which seems folkloric and even shamanistic, apparently devoid of irony, through Simmons’ poetry and prose about the power of feeling and being, the landscape and life. Full of black-and-white photographs of sculptural details shot from all angles, like a museum curator’s catalogue, its texts appear to invoke nature spirits and pagan gods, and to infer the universal and the timeless from personal experience. The press release defines ‘penetralia’ as: “1. The innermost parts of a building, especially the sanctuary of a temple. 2. The most private or secret parts; recesses: the penetralia of the soul.” Is this another manifestation of Lucas’ apparent exhibitionism, the externalisation of a foray into the innermost self?

The sculptures’ incorporation of casts of flint brings in another element; there is an obvious analogy with the tool (a ghost of the cock gag) which suggests past cultures’ beliefs in the sacredness of hunting and virility. Leaving the basement, which houses two copies of the book, look again at the layout of the ground floor works on your way out: the arrangement of the plinths suggests a stone circle or the temple of the title. Maybe this set of work is as much a paean to notions of masculinity as a quiet joke.

Penetralia
14 October – 15 November
Sadie Coles HQ,
69 South Audley Street, London
Image from http://www.sadiecoles.co.uk

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