Sarah Lucas, Sandwich, 2004–20. Jesmonite, polystyrene, and paint, 65 x 250 x 190 cm. Photo: © Sarah Lucas, Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

Sarah Lucas


Tate Britain

Two monumental cast concrete marrows, Florian and Kevin (both 2013), greet visitors at the entrance to Tate Britain. These blatantly phallic forms are a fitting precursor to “Happy Gas” (on view through January 14, 2024), an exuberant, if irreverent, survey of Sarah Lucas’s practice over four decades. Marrows, which reference the English pastoral tradition, also serve as arch symbols in Lucas’s idiosyncratic exploration of class, sex, and gender—themes that pervade the exhibition. “Happy Gas” contains about 75 works, from early pieces such as Bunny (1997) to a large group of new sculptures, including Cross Doris (2019), Cool Chick Baby (2020), Goddess (2022), and Zen Lovesong (2023). The show was devised in close collaboration with Lucas, who juxtaposed the works within four spaces in order to avoid the chronological approach of conventional retrospectives.

Lucas rose to prominence during the 1990s, the era of the Young British Artists. The YBAs achieved great acclaim following “Freeze,” the now legendary exhibition curated by Damien Hirst in 1988. They shared an entrepreneurial approach to making and showing work, creating pieces that were often perceived as highly provocative. Their significance cannot be underestimated, in that they completely revitalized the British art scene, spawning a plethora of commercial galleries still in existence today. Although the YBAs have now entered the contemporary canon, Lucas’s work is as audacious as ever, both in its depiction of the female body, and in her particular use of innuendo and wordplay.

Domestic furniture and fixtures—altered to reference aspects of sex and desire, as well as human vulnerability and debasement—frequently feature in Lucas’s practice. “Happy Gas” presents a selection of such sculptures, including The Old Couple (1992), which consists of two chairs, a wax penis, and a set of false teeth; the seminal Bunny, a figure made from stuffed tights sitting on a plywood chair; Cnut (2004), a concrete form, minus head and shoulders, on a toilet; and Sandwich (2004–20), a solitary personage positioned in the middle of a giant sandwich. Lucas frequently used readily available materials such as tights, found objects, food, and cigarettes, and they continue to have a place in her work today.

Her evocation of the headless female figure, or “Bunny,” seated on a chair is central to “Happy Gas.” The recent “Bunnies” appear even more malleable than the original. They slump, proactively perch, or wrap their disconcertingly impossible limbs around the chair’s frame. A new group, never shown before, explores the objectification of the female body while maintaining notably individual characteristics. Cool Chick Baby’s legs are wildly askew; Sugar (2020) boasts multiple breasts; and the voluptuousness of Fat Doris (2023) arises from additional rolls of stuffed tights. Lucas’s figures seem to undulate through the gallery like a fantastical theatrical parade; additional sculptural debuts sidle around their feet, taking the shape of seemingly random bronze cats (Tit Tom 1, 2, and 3, all 2023).

Other sculptures—made from concrete, bronze, and steel—include Cross Doris, depicted with her arms sullenly folded, and Goddess, who appears decidedly joyous, arms uplifted, gesturing exuberantly in an attempt to quell the competition. Among the most striking pieces on display are figures made of resin and acrylic paint, such as Bunny Rabbit (2023) and Zen Lovesong. Gaudy colors and over-the-top footwear lend an unashamed glitziness, reinforced by eye-catching plinths. Chairs are integral to these figures, yet the writhing mass of limbs makes any division between support and occupant unclear, serving to endow furniture with a strangely anthropomorphic quality.

Although the lewdness of “Happy Gas” gives rise to a sense of hilarity, the show does contain an undercurrent of darkness. The title alludes to Lucas’s fondness for cigarettes—a source of both pleasure and destruction. Within her work, cigarettes offer multiple possibilities, often protruding playfully from her configurations. This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018), notably, takes the form of a burned-out vehicle covered in cigarettes, symbolizing the smoker’s lungs and inevitable physical decline. Likewise, photographs of Lucas—blown-up as wallpaper and surrounding the sculptures—act as a mechanism to establish a crucial dialogue between her older and younger selves.