Performing and Provoking: Humor And Exaggeration As Provocation In Sarah Lucas’s Self-Portraits
Sarah Lucas’s work, both sculptural and photographic, is, on the surface, an examination of female sexuality. Her crude representation of the female body through food and furniture in her sculptural works satirize the view of the woman through the male gaze. While her self-portraits function in this way as well, Lucas also uses her body language, facial expression, clothing, and composition in order to question the intersection of gender, sexuality, and self-presentation.
Lucas, part of the Young British Artists movement, worked amongst other conceptually-focused artist such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Jake & Dinos Chapman[i]. Provocation was at the core of this collection of artists — Tracey Emin’s embroideries and monoprints[ii], Hirst’s preserved animal installations[iii], the Chapman’s perverse prints and sculptures[iv]. It was within this creating environment permeated with dark, frank humor addressing sexuality, morality, and humanity that Lucas was also creating work.
Her earliest pieces were sculptural ready-mades[v]; she took pieces of furniture — tables, chair, mattresses — and attached melons, fish, cucumbers, oranges, buckets to the furniture, creating blatant, rough male and female forms. (Fig. 1). Through her two-dimensional work, Lucas addresses these same sexual stereotypes, photocopying and enlarging cheap tabloids, showing ads for sex and misogynistic sex articles about women[vi], such as in Seven Up! in 1991 (Fig. 2). Like Andy Warhol, Lucas took advantage of the cheapness and accessibility of popular culture in order to ridicule it. By the 1980s and early ’90s, when Lucas was appropriating these tabloid center spreads, the sexualization and objectification of women on television, music, and printed media (such as the tabloids) was commonplace. Women as sex objects were a naturalized aspect of the British social culture; these magazines and their articles and photographs were not unusual. Lucas, however, challenges these normalized images by enlarging the pages of the magazine, titling them based on the main headline within the spread. In this way, these prints become an exposure, taking what is a generally private, unspoken (albeit accepted) part of male culture, and blowing it up for all to see. As critic Morgan Falconer writes about Lucas’s Tate Liverpool exhibition in Sarah Lucas: Zürich, Hamburg and Liverpool, the large scale turns the images and text into an exaggeration of the misogynistic culture, which in turn becomes an emasculation and mockery of it[vii].
At the same time she was developing these exposing, emasculating prints, Lucas was also beginning to use self-portraiture to critique and “direct attention[viii],” as Lucas describes, to the sexism within everyday life and popular culture. Using food and symbolism, Lucas creates her first self-portrait, Eating a Banana in 1990 (Fig. 3). Over the next ten years, Lucas creates a variety of these self-portraits[ix]: Self-Portrait with Mug of Tea (1993) (Fig. 4), Fighting Fire with Fire (1996) (Fig. 5), Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) (Fig. 6), Self-portrait with Skull (1997) (Fig. 7), Got a Salmon on #3 (1997) (Fig. 8), Summer (1998) (Fig. 9). Through these portraits, she plays with her own gender and sexuality as she employs symbolism and uses her own body to poke at the same misogyny that fueled her sculptural and printed work. Unlike the tabloid prints and sculptures, these self-portraits are not only political. They also become personal, speaking to her own sexuality and gender as well. Through this self-portrayal, Lucas uses the exaggeration of masculinity, aggression, and humor within her self-portraits in order to provoke the viewers, challenging perception of gender, the female body, female sexuality, and normalized misogynistic attitudes.
Before I proceed, I want to clarify the distinction between sex, gender, and sexuality. Sex is the physical, biological sex characteristics — male and female — such as body shape and genitalia. Gender is the expression of masculinity and femininity, the psychological identification that can be expressed through body language, clothing, and hairstyle: Gender identity is how you identify yourself — man or woman — and gender expression is how you present yourself — wearing masculine or feminine clothing, hair, body language, etc. Sexuality refers to whom you are attracted to, and all of these characteristics are independent of each other[x]. For example, a female person (sex) can identify as a woman (gender identity), dress and behave in more masculine ways (gender expression), and be attracted to men (sexuality). These terms will be used throughout the essay in reference to Lucas’s works.
Within her work, humor is an integral part of Lucas’s provocation. In a later self-portrait, Self-Portrait With Fried Eggs (Fig. 6), Lucas sits, reclining in a chair in the middle of a checkered linoleum floor. She is wearing ripped, baggy jeans, heavy shoes, and a grey t-shirt. Her hair is cropped at her chin. She sits with her legs apart, and her arms resting a top the arms of the chair. She stares, blankly but sternly, at the camera, as two fried eggs sit on top of breasts. Lucas’s body language, her clothing, her hair, her facial expression is very unconventionally female — Lucas looks very masculine. However, at the same time, she is also emphasizing (and satirizing) the female attributes of her body. By placing fried eggs over her breasts — equating her body to food, something to be consumed — she is poking fun at society’s view of the female body and of female sexuality. The visual pun of the eggs is humorous, and Lucas adds yet another element of provocation — reclaiming the joke on her body as her own[xi].
In her earliest self-portrait, Eating a Banana (Fig. 3), Lucas again takes advantage of her gender presentation and the performance of gender in order to exaggerate the masculine aggression and comment on the female identity and its purpose. In this black and white image, Lucas wears a white t-shirt and a leather jacket, and her hair is cropped to the same chin-length as in Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (Fig. 6). The photograph is a close-up view of Lucas, showing her from her shoulders to the top of her head. Her body is turned to the side slightly, and she is eating a banana — holding it in her mouth with her right hand, the banana skin flopping over her hand. She stares at the camera out of the corner of her eyes, her face glaring. This self-portrait is especially androgynous compared to her others. While Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (Fig. 6) is more obviously a woman presenting masculinity, the fried eggs exemplifying her chest, Eating A Banana (Fig. 3) gives very little indication that Lucas is a woman. This image shows a sexually laden activity assumed for women — eating a banana — in conjunction with a masculine/androgynous person doing the activity. Through British art critic and artist Matthew Collings’s analysis of Lucas’s work in Sarah Lucas, he reflects upon this disjunction in this image, how the photograph is plays with society’s idea of the woman as glamorous and sexual, yet through a very gritty, crude image[xii]. While the viewer is searching for the glamour in the act of eating a banana, one that could be associated with a very feminine woman posing for tabloids and magazines doing the same activity, this feminine woman eating a banana would be provoking the viewer in a different kind of sexual way — one that is sexually attractive. Yet, here she provoking discomfort, suggesting sexual activity while presenting this in contrast with her hostile glare and rough leather coat. The aggression is amplified even further through the title, Eating A Banana (Fig. 3) — she is literally biting, consuming the phallus, emasculating the male gaze not only by reflecting her own objectification onto the men through the photograph, but also by the action within the photograph. Again, Lucas uses her exaggerated masculinity to strip away the female-appeal that the male gaze needs, seeks, as she creates a funny, bastardized performance of fellatio.
How does gender presentation play a role in this exaggeration and provocation? Continuing from the ideas about Lucas’s gender presentation and androgyny Morgan Falconer discusses in his article Sarah Lucas: Zürich, Hamburg and Liverpool, if she presented as conventionally female (dressing femininely, emphasizing her female features — breasts, hips — wearing her hair long and holding her body a certain way), would this photograph still have the same emphasis?[xiii] As a woman, she makes these very crude jokes. Yet, she presents like a man. Matthew Collings writes how while she presents her body in a way that is more masculine, she is also assuming the male role within the joke — she is the one making the joke, rather than just taking it upon herself[xiv]. Recognizing her female body — and satirizing it through the eggs within Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (Fig. 6) — allows her to not only take ownership of the joke that is, essentially, against herself, but also to question the stereotypes and tropes of the female body, challenging the male gaze by dressing and behaving in an entirely unfeminine way.
And, so, while her work is obviously speaking about the problematic objectification of the female body and the social aversion to female sexuality, is it not also about her own self — her own gender and sexuality? Lucas made a conscious decision to use herself as the subject of the portraits, titling them as so. In Sarah Lucas in reference to herself, Lucas explains how, “[she] thought [she] looked masculine in a way [she] didn’t always find palatable”[xv] yet she still used this more masculine presentation not to exemplify herself for “vanity”[xvi] but for the purpose of the photograph. Suddenly, these photographs are no longer just critiques on the sexism in society today; they also are an exploration of Lucas’s own gender and sexuality in conjunction with her body and presentation — her dissatisfaction and her disconnect between her own identity as a masculine-presenting woman in a social structure that values hyper-femininity within a woman.
Lucas acknowledges this discomfort she has with her gender presentation — a masculinity that she “didn’t always find palatable”[xvii], yet still uses this uncomfortable aspect of herself to create the most meaning in her work. If her gender presentation, her body language, her style was something she was uncomfortable with, why didn’t she change it? It could be that she truly is uncomfortable with herself, wanting a male body, yet being stuck in a female one. Or, perhaps, she is comfortable with herself, her body, her gender presentation, and the discomfort stems instead from the fact that she knows society is uncomfortable with her gender presentation. Her worn-out, masculine clothing, her blank-yet-stern facial expressions and her androgynous face all contradict the social connotations attached to her female body. Lucas states, “I define myself by what I don’t want to be”[xviii] — that she does not want to be an object for the male gaze? These self-portraits become an exploration of her own gender expression and gender representation in relation to her sexuality — how she feels at odds with the way women are portrayed and expected to act, yet still living in a female body and having those expectations placed upon herself.
By owning a female body, Lucas immediately assumes the social pressures and expectations of expressing femininity, of providing sex to men, of being something nice to look at. And, this could be why she is uncomfortable with her masculinity — because she knows that, while, at the end of the day, she is comfortable with herself, she is also contradicting the social norms. And so, while these photographs are a humorous provocation to the viewer, challenging the charm and obligations imbued upon the female body, they also become an avenue for her own understanding of her discomfort.
Fighting Fire with Fire (Fig. 5), another self-portrait, focuses again on the over-performance of masculinity in contrast with female sexuality. This self-portrait shows Lucas again with her signature scowl. She is wearing a plain t-shirt, and her hair cropped in the same way as the other portraits. Her chin is lifted slightly and her eyebrows are furrowed, and she holds in her mouth a cigarette, half of which is just ash waiting to fall. While the element of food symbolism is absent from this image, it’s as through her masculinity is exaggerated even more. While the photograph maintains the phallic imagery through the cigarette in her mouth, Lucas provokes the viewer in other ways. Her hostile facial expression parallels the power and control she holds within the long ash of the cigarette. By maintaining the ash, she risks the mess of the ash crumbling, provoking the viewer in other ways, through the nervousness and anxiety brought on by the ash. Again, Lucas performs a caricature of masculinity, emulating a Popeye-esque expression, turning the male gaze back on itself.
Lucas’s self-portraits and the performance of the photographs are not unlike Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. While they stray from each other in the sense that Lucas’s are very obviously self-portraits and Sherman’s are modeling a type of photography, they both take advantage of portraying stereotypes. As Sherman spoke about her Film Stills series, she discussed the way that, for her, the photographs were character explorations, a way of dressing up that stemmed from her interest in make up and role-playing[xix]. However, a majority of feminist critics interpret them as feminist critiques on the male gaze, and the stereotypes of The Woman[xx].
Cindy Sherman began developing her early Untitled Film Still series in the late 1970s during her time at Buffalo State College in New York. Sherman isn’t often identified as part of a specific artists group, like Lucas is among the Young British Artists. However, she was part of a smaller, self-made collective during her time at university[xxi]. Although Sherman noted that the art scene at her school was “boring”[xxii] she became part of a group trying to solve this lack of artistic enthusiasm. Along with Robert Longo, Nancy Dwyer, Larry Lundy, Charles Clough, Diane Bertolo, and Michael Zwack, Sherman began an installation collective named Hallwalls. This guerilla-style group hung artwork on the walls between studios, an impromptu gallery that became a space for visiting artists and a way to foster an artist’s community. It has now moved from the halls of the school, and grown into a contemporary art gallery[xxiii].
This group of artists’ work was less cohesive than the Young British Artists; there isn’t a thematic thread that connects their works. Dwyer’s surreal digital rendering and text experimentations[xxiv], Longo’s charcoal drawings of Men in The Cities[xxv], Clough’s abstract paintings[xxvi], Sherman’s Film Stills[xxvii] all stray from each other conceptually and formally. Instead, these artists were connected more by their desire to create a community for themselves, which sometimes backfired as Sherman notes that other students at the school would remove Hallwalls event posters[xxviii].Yet, this isn’t to say that this environment that Sherman was creating in had no impact on her; rather, it was, perhaps, the reason she created her Film Stills. Sherman describes that it was Robert Longo who encouraged her to use photography to document her ideas instead of painting them out, leading to the development of the series[xxix].
Acknowledging the differences within Sherman and Lucas’s artistic environments and conceptual motivation, it is interesting to note that they are both critiques of the male gaze. Sherman’s Film Stills are not necessarily self-portraits. In fact, she writes that she isn’t satisfied with a work until she can begin to separate herself from it when she views it[xxx]. Her Film Stills were made to emulate B Film characters from the 1950s and 1960s. Representing stereotypes like the city woman, the hitchhiking woman, the good-girl-gone-bad within these photographs, Sherman used these characters not as self-portraits, but as a way of understanding herself[xxxi]. In Untitled Film Still #13 (Fig. 10), Sherman poses in a library, in front of a shelf of books. She wears a collared shirt tucked into a skirt, and long blonde hair pulled back with a headband. She reaches for a book above her, stretching her clothes tight, emphasizing her breasts and waist. She looks off the to the right, behind and above her. Here, Sherman assumes an academic or secretary-like trope, taking advantage of her clothing and body language to emphasize her sexuality. She stretches out her body, while looking off camera, giving the viewer permission to look at all she reveals.
Sherman describes how these Film Stills weren’t self-portraits, but rather a quicker version of painting, and a way to understand more of herself. She wanted to show the confusion and frustration[xxxii] within the characters’ roles, a reflection of her own confusion with herself. However, Sherman’s works are inadvertently a feminist critique of the male gaze, as later critics interpreted these photographs as a performance of female stereotypes. The way the characters look off the camera, avoiding eye contact with the viewer and the way these women all fulfill classic stereotypes about women — the photographs are both an object for the male gaze, and also an exposure and mockery of it.
While Sherman used feminine stereotypes to challenge the male gaze, Lucas’s self-portraits pervert these conventions in order to ridicule it. Sherman’s characters avert their eyes, stretch their bodies to show their feminine form, and stand vulnerable on the side of highways, imitating the stereotypes of the B films and exaggerating the feminine weakness and sexualization. Yet, Lucas’s self-portraits stare directly at you, glaring. They confront the viewer in an exaggeration of masculinity through the body language, the crudeness of the visual symbols. They are each a different kind of mockery: Sherman’s an imitation, Lucas’s a bastardization.
It is the humor and perversion and the gender bending of Lucas’s self-portraits that give them the provocative power. Sherman’s Film Stills are less confrontational and darker, more serious and subtle. If you view the Film Stills out of context, the photographs seem to simply be what they are emulating — Film Stills. But Lucas’s are clever in the way that they don’t emulate the form of something else. Instead, They are self-portraits, a representation of the self though grainy film magazine-like photos. These exaggerations allow Lucas to incorporate humor into the pieces, an integral element of the works.
While they are self-portraits not imitations like Sherman’s, there is still an element of role-playing in Lucas’s self-portraits. In her 1993 Self-portrait with Mug of Tea (Fig. 4), Lucas sits in a chair, which has been edited out of the photograph, reclining with her legs spread. She wears heavy work boots, baggy jeans, and a loose t-shirt. She stares slightly to the left, blue mug of tea in her right hand resting on the now-removed arm of the chair. In her left hand, she holds a cigarette up, her arm bent at the elbow. In this portrait, which is comprised of many smaller photos pasted together on a board, Lucas imitates a workman, or a builder taking a tea break. The perspective of the photograph places her work boots and spread, domineering legs in the foreground. Here, she doesn’t exemplify the female stereotype, but performs the exact opposite, exaggerating the masculine gender in both body language and clothing, imitating the man. Sherman, as the artist and model, takes on the role of both the objectified and the objectifier, and Lucas does the same: using exaggeration to poke fun at the overly masculine performance that men assume when objectifying women, Lucas is simultaneously the object of the gaze.
At the core of Lucas’s artistic practice lies the desire to expose. It is the performance, the exaggeration, and the symbolism within all her prints, sculptures, installations, and self-portraits, that culminate in a humorous caricature of the male gaze; Her performance of masculinity and stereotypes become an illumination and ridicule of the normalized objectification of women. However, what makes these works, specifically her self-portraits, so provocative and powerful, is the crudeness of the visual puns and the humor of the exaggerated performance. The discomfort and grittiness of the photographs and Lucas’s portrayal of herself not only deconstructs what it means to be a woman, but also conventional ideas of female desire.
[i] “Young British Artists (YBAs).” Artsy. Accessed December 17, 2015.
[iv] “Jake & Dinos Chapman.” Artsy. Accessed December 17, 2015. https://www.artsy.net/artist/jake-and-dinos-chapman.
[v] Falconer, Morgan. 2006. “Sarah Lucas. Zürich, Hamburg and Liverpool”. The Burlington Magazine 148 (1235). The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.: 137. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/20074324.
[vi] “Sarah Lucas, ‘Seven Up’ 1991.” Tate. Accessed December 17, 2015. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lucas-seven-up-p78206/text-summary.
[vii] Falconer, Morgan. 2006. “Sarah Lucas. Zürich, Hamburg and Liverpool”. The Burlington Magazine 148 (1235). The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.: 137. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/20074324.
[viii] “Sarah Lucas, ‘Seven Up’ 1991.” Tate. Accessed December 17, 2015. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lucas-seven-up-p78206/text-summary.
[ix] “Artist Biography: Sarah Lucas.” Tate. Accessed December 17, 2015. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sarah-lucas-2643.
[x] Killermann, Sam. “The Genderbread Person.” Its Pronounced Metrosexual. Accessed December 17, 2015. http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/.
[xi] Collings, Matthew. Sarah Lucas. London: Tate Pub., 2002. 51.
[xii] Collings, Sarah Lucas, 62.
[xiii] Falconer, Morgan. 2006. “Sarah Lucas. Zürich, Hamburg and Liverpool”. The Burlington Magazine 148 (1235). The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.: 138. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/20074324.
[xiv] Collings, Sarah Lucas, 51.
[xv] Collings, Sarah Lucas, 72.
[xvi] Collings, Sarah Lucas, 72.
[xvii] Collings, Sarah Lucas, 72
[xviii] Borzello, Frances. Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-portraits. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. 190.
[xix] Brittain David, and Cindy Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” Creative Camera, no. 308 (February-March 1991): 34.
[xx] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 36.
[xxi] Munro, Cait. “Buffalo’s Legendary Art Space Hallwalls Turns 40.” Artnet. June 09, 2015. Accessed December 17, 2015. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/hallwalls-cindy-sherman-robert-longo-40-306418.
[xxii] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 34.
[xxiii] Munro, Cait. “Buffalo’s Legendary Art Space Hallwalls Turns 40.” Artnet. June 09, 2015. Accessed December 17, 2015. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/hallwalls-cindy-sherman-robert-longo-40-306418.
[xxvii] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 34–38.
[xxviii] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 35.
[xxix] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 34.
[xxx] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 37.
[xxxi] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 36.
[xxxii] Brittain and Sherman, “Cindy Sherman Interviewed: True Confessions,” 36.