Sarah Lucas (1962 – )
Sarah Lucas was born in London. She studied at the London College of Printing and graduated from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 1987. She participated in the group exhibition Freeze, curated by fellow Goldsmiths’ student Damien Hirst in 1988, and the East Country Yard Show, which she co-curated in 1990.
Using the simplest of materials combined with an urban sensibility, Lucas’s sculptures have a raw energy, the confrontational nature of which is undercut by a wry sense of humour leaving the viewer both provoked and amused. There are serious concerns which under-pin her work addressing such themes as sex and death. Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992 and Bitch, 1995, challenge accepted stereotypes with their crude portrayal of women; and death is very much in evidence in Is Suicide Genetic, 1996 and Life’s a Drag Organs, 1998, which feature respectively a burnt-out armchair with a crash helmet made of cigarettes, and two burnt-out cars with the seats and parts of the exteriors also decorated with cigarettes.
For her most recent series of works entitled NUDS, the artist uses stuffed and convoluted nylon stockings to suggest aspects of the female form. Part of a larger series of works, collectively entitled ‘NUDS’, the works recall Lucas’s 1997 series of ‘Bunny’ sculptures, which explicitly explore the female form, using tights, stockings and furniture. The NUDS are more abstract and their amorphous shapes link them formally with the organic, universalised aesthetics of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth.
Lucas had her first solo exhibition in 1992 at City Racing, an artists’ run gallery in south London, and her first solo show in New York at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 1995. The following year she had a solo exhibition at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam and was the subject of a BBC television documentary, Two Melons and a Stinking Fish. She has exhibited widely and her work has been shown in many important group exhibitions including: Brilliant! New Art from London at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis in 1996, Sensation: Young British Artists in the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1997, Real/Life: New British Art which toured to five museums in Japan in 1998-99, and Intelligence: New British Art 2000 at Tate Britain, London. In 2000 she had solo exhibitions in London, Tokyo and Barcelona. A major retrospective of her work was presented at Tate Liverpool in 2005.
Recent exhibitions include, SITUATION – a space dedicated to her work at Sadie Coles, London – which hosted eight consecutive shows in 2012/13; Tramway, Glasgow (2014), ‘NOB + Gelatin’, Secession, Vienna (2013-14), and ‘SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble’, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2013.
The term ‘Documentary’ was not coined until the 1920s, and then used by the British film-maker, John Grierson, to refer to moving pictures. It has a long and continuous history in British photography, reaching back to the invention of the medium. Many critics claimed that the documentary impulse, which can perhaps be best defined as the systematic recording of visual reality for the purpose of providing information and encouraging understanding of the world, is inherent in the medium itself. It was this view which came to be known as the realist paradigm - the belief that a photograph represents a ‘slice of reality’ easily understood by the viewer. This belief governed understanding of photography from the moment of its invention in the era of positivism in the 19th Century, until it was itself subject to interrogation in the 1980s.
Early British practitioners included John Thomson whose visual essay Street Life in London (1876) documented the life of the London poor, and Hill and Adamson who portrayed, in the mid 1840s, the customs and way of life of the fisher folk of Newhaven near Edinburgh. In the early 20th century, following the emergence of documentary film-making and Mass Observation (a study undertaken in the North of England by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson), this new aesthetic found its most persuasive outlet in the mass circulation weekly magazines, such as Picture Post and Life. In time, however, pressure from advertisers combined with the restrictions of group journalism and curtailed the independence of creative photographers, with only exceptional individuals such as Bill Brandt able to survive as both a photojournalist and an independent photographer. His images of Britain’s class-ridden society along with his more experimental nudes, portraits and landscapes had a profound influence on a younger generation and established Brant as a major creative force in the development of modernism in Britain.
Mass Observation was designed to emulate the radical achievements of the worker-photography movement which had arisen in Germany during the 1920s. It proved influential on the evolution of British documentary, especially on those photographers associated with the Side Gallery in Newcastle. The gallery fostered a regional, community-oriented form of documentary practice. Its philosophy was rooted firmly in the notion that an authentic document can only be generated by those familiar with the local community. Photographers associated with Side Gallery included Sirkka Konttinen, Isabella Jedrecyck, Graham Smith, Peter Fryer, Chris Killip and Julian Germain.
It was, however, across the Atlantic that the more enduring legacy concerning the ethics and status of documentary was to be found in the work of the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration to document the plight of the American rural poor during the Depression. One of its outstanding photographers was Walker Evans whose use of signs and symbols (such as billboards and advertising hoardings) as images of desire created a text or narrative to accompany the careful sequencing of images. The direct inheritors of the photograph as social sign were the American photographers of the ‘social landscape’, namely Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus whose unsympathetic vision of the American landscape reflected the anxieties of urban life during the booming consumer decade - store fronts, billboards, graffiti and advertising. They chose to portray people, situations and artefacts in a casual and objective way that allowed the viewer to interpret the work freely; a strategy that became known as the ‘snapshot aesthetic’. One of those who experienced many of these developments first hand was the British photographer Tony Ray-Jones. His work was widely reproduced in the 1960s and his book A Day Off (1974) proved a particular inspiration for the generation of documentary photographers who developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The work of early documentary photographs can be found in the collections of the Royal Photographic Society www.rps.org)
The Mass Observation archive is held by the University of Sussex www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/
The work of the Side Gallery can be seen at www.amber-online.com/gallery/
The archive for the Farm Security Administration is now in the Print and Reading Room Collections of the Library of Congress in Washington www.loc.gov/rr/print