Is art ludicrous or a bigger reckoning?

by Allison Boenig

I hadn’t been back to the New Museum since Spring of last year, when the Museum was featuring an exhibition called Songs for Sabotage (The name of the Museum’s fourth triennial). This exhibition featured artists of all mediums, weaponized with different attitudes, engaging with old and new kinds of media, to comment on and reckon with the constructs that influence, build, and perhaps warp our modern society. In recalling this exhibition and the way it called to every component of my curiosity (my moralistic sense, my artistic mind, my satire-loving and activist sensibilities), I made a point to leave the afternoon of the following day open, to perhaps find this again at whatever exhibition was to be featured this season at the New Museum.

I, surrendering to my art-deprived mind, on a free Tuesday afternoon in mid November, about eight months since I last graced the tall, sleek corridors of the New Museum, began to make my way down Bowery, to peruse.

In walking into the sterile, yet asymmetrically pleasing lobby, I saw on the digital directory that the main exhibition featured in the museum is that of Sarah Lucas’s, a sculptor, photographer and installation artist from the UK, with her first large-scale retrospective happening here at the New Museum through the 20th of January. As directed by the pixeled board above my head, I started at the 4th floor, the top floor of her exhibition, in order to make my way leisurely down.

I was struck immediately by the all-encompassing self-portraits of the androgynous, demanding, punk-faced Lucas blown-up to cover the walls of the fourth floor. Legs spread wide, she invites us, like a quippy brute, into her collection of paper-mached and collaged hybrids of trash-turned-treasure stuff. Sculptures unbothered and enormous grace this floor; the first of which to stand out to me was that of a white-sculpted phallus on a heap of compressed metal - an old car, perhaps? Then, adjacent to this work, a severed, old car skeleton covered entirely in curving lines of unlit cigarettes, brown and white segments atop an unmistakable contour. Other works on this floor include abstract sculptures - some more suggestive than others - compiled of wires and soiled, found furniture, that also support her physicalized banter with institutional conventions. Ten minutes of traipsing around, and I was already confounded by a couple of disorienting, highly confrontational tableaux that begged the questions: am i supposed to look at this body of work as if its art? As if its trash? As if each piece is indeed the anatomic pieces it represents? Should I laugh? Look away?

As I continued through the exhibition, as each room housing her work melted into the content/intent of the next, I felt my body become simultaneously eased and roused: eased by her humor, her awareness of her own “plebeian” resourcefulness, her own amusement at her subversion of what art can be, and roused by the grace, precision and profundity of her execution. I felt unstifled - it was a walk through the breadth and the residual breath of an artist who nods at anti-conformity, who bows to anti-elitism, who gives the finger to the “masters” with, surprisingly, sensitivity and thankfully, wit.

To cite another sub-body in her entire body of works, her Muses were works that thrilled me. Essentially, Lucas had made casts of the bodies of some of her closest female friends, from the waist down, and each is named after the woman the cast was made from. In naming them the Muses, this series is a subversion of a term traditionally coined by male artists rendering women. Placing them atop many seemingly-arbitrary household objects and setting a cigarette in one of each of their orifices, the sculptures become a playful jest and brazenly posed question of what is desirable? How must the nude shape/figure be placed to dictate as art?

To attempt to cite any and all of her works is truly a disservice, as nothing will suffice viewing her work yourself. She walks a tension wire between logic and the nonsensical, the sexually explicit and the childishly absurd, and she invites us to walk this tension wire with her. I had known nothing about Sarah Lucas, her lewdness, her forays in an out of multiple artistic disciplines, her combining and melding of them. And now, I can’t get her sense of play and her acute ability to portray out of my head and imagination. As an actor, it is easy to forget how crucial viewing the visual arts is to one’s sense of ever expanding artistry. And it's just as exciting to rediscover how mediums of art that aren’t necessarily your primary mediums or in your wheelhouse at all can inform your idea of art in a new way. Lucas’s work was a breath of poignant air, refreshing and revitalizing.


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