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Power in Woman: Sarah Lucas and the Female Gaze

The revolutionary British artist sheds light on her new exhibition of plaster cast sculptures, currently on display in London

Sarah Lucas shot to art stardom in the late 1980s with her bawdy, sexually charged works depicting body parts crafted from mundane, 'found' objects. A lemon for a breast; an errant mattress for a body; flesh-coloured tights stuffed to the seams to resemble a jutting phallus, a leg (or both) – Lucas’ art, which brazenly comments on contemporary gender tropes, death and sexuality, played a pivotal role in the rise of Young British Artist movement of the 1990s.

During that explosive period – where Lucas and her fellow YBAs (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume et al) partied like rock veterans – her provocative aesthetic frequently divided opinion, as did her so-called stance on feminism. Today, despite swapping her native north London for a more rural life in Suffolk, the British artist is still unwaveringly relevant. Her latest exhibit, titled Power in Woman, is currently on display inside the North Drawing Room of Sir John Soane's museum, London. Pitched against egg yolk-yellow walls and classical furniture, the show presents three grey plaster-cast mouldings of her muses, Yoko, Michele and Pauline, affixed to chairs or tables in various positions.

As we've come to expect from Lucas, the sculptures provoke a delightfully mixed bag of reactions. Shock, at Lucas’ titillating pun on the traditional reclining female nude. Humour, at the stubby plaster fags pushed into belly button holes and bottoms (not forgetting the stark contradiction of the works against the museum’s classical decor). And lastly awe, at the soft, feminine elegance of the poses, and the versatile tactility exhibited by the same material. Below, the artist herself offers a greater insight into the show and her working process…

On whether her art is beautiful
"How do we know when something is beautiful? I think, in a way, the least beautiful works are the works that have been a breakthrough for me. Like, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab [1992]– you can’t really consider that as beautiful. Well, maybe some people can, but in a way it’s style-less. It’s pared-down and not pandering to any aesthetic. I suppose in a way, it was beautiful. Mr Saatchi actually bought that piece."

On the title of her latest show, Power in Woman
"The funny thing is, the day before the show opened in London, it was International Women’s Day. I knew I wanted to make a powerfully feminine show, but at the same time I didn’t want to make an angry show. "

On plaster casting her muses
"As each of the three models, my muses, Patricia, Michele and Yoko discovered, even to keep a very natural pose for an hour or more, an hour-and-a-half, does become really quite uncomfortable. So we tended to decide on the pose first, then you have to draw on each person where the sections you want to cast are. You can only really have two people work on casting the mould, which has to be done really quickly."

On the problems with casting plaster
"It can go wrong really easily! It’s a one hit wonder. There are also things you can’t envision, like how complicated it’s going to be to fill it out, how heavy it gets. Sometimes we had to start completely from scratch, things cracked, dried up. And actually, as time has gone on, each of the sculptures has altered."

On the magic of basic materials
"I think, as with a lot of things, that all materials are basically the same value – whether that’s gold or plaster. Depending on whether it’s the right material to use, whether we’re trying to use it in a real way… I’m happy with crappy materials and that didn’t change because I had more resources as I sold stuff. As I say, I use a spectrum of things and I used to think years ago that you could always make anything out of anything at all. That was quite central to my thinking at one point."

On using cigarettes to draw the eye
"I knew I didn’t have to put cigarettes into the Power in Women works. Part of me was thinking that I don’t need them, ‘cause they’re sort of alright without them. But I do think they added a certain provocation and humour – that they’re not literally smoking because they don’t have the torsos and they’re sculptures. Also, the cigarette acts as a focal point, it draws the eye. It is an eye, in fact!" 

On explicit sexual content in her new show
"I don’t think any of the pieces are that shocking. Things, other images, people see everyday are far more explicit. I find the thing that makes it shocking is people’s own self-consciousness."

On the humour of her work... 
"No joke is a joke. Things are only funny because they actually tickle or they get under your skin."

On accumulating objects for art... 
"I don't like the responsibility of looking after things. I don't have lavish amounts of room for that either! Well, I do have some weird old things like a toilet in my garden and a scale model of the British Pavillion, which I actually smashed up with a dozen eggs and photographed. I suppose I accumulate things, but I actually like to have a bare space, hardly anything at all."

On her creative practice now... 
"I actually don't go into a studio very much. I mostly just knock about at home. I do have a studio; it's kind of a big shed in my garden. I don't have a routine either. I always think that when I suddenly have to create a new show, that even if I were to walk around this floor, or go back to my house and have a walk around the garden, the components would always be there."

Power in Woman by Sarah Lucas in on view at Sir John Soane's Museum in London until May 21, 2016.