The circulation of images from Sarah Lucas’ Nud Nob, now at Gladstone Gallery, on social media and elsewhere seems bound to be both blessing and curse. On the one hand, shots of enormous concrete penises resting on crushed automobiles, or a series of floor-to-ceiling photographs of a woman consuming a banana, really propagate themselves, which makes for great publicity. But those who encounter these images are perhaps too likely to write off the show as one of cheeky spectacle—of another British punk artist banking on humor instead of substance—when this is not the case.
Sure, Lucas’ work is humorous, but to summarize her objects as mere “dirty jokes” is simply wrong. At the gallery, a pattern of viewer behavior quickly becomes obvious: Amusement gives way to discomfort, followed by a quickened shuffle through the remaining rooms and back out the door. The fact that the phallus—a privileged object in artistic representation since antiquity—still has such a powerful effect on people is evidence enough that the subject has not been exhausted; that there are still significances for art to tease out. In the words of Frank T.J. Mackie, “respect the cock.” Lucas seems to winkingly agree.
Most of the sculptures in Nud Nob are actually cast in bronze, which is a significant departure from the soft, everyday materials that Lucas has previously used (and, given the stiff subject matter, an apt one). Florian, a faithful replica of a cucumber, has been blown up to the scale of a minivan, as has its concrete and more frankly anatomical companion, Eros. Other sculptures, depicting long-limbed, loosely anthropomorphic reclining figures, some sporting comically massive erections, retain the dimensions of their starting components: cotton-stuffed nylon stockings. They could just as easily have been balloons, though, and with their beautifully reflective gilding, they suggest the work of Jeff Koons—an artist whose masculinity is always in one way or another on display.
Cars, balloons, oblong vegetables, and plain male members: This is indeed the tapestry of modern images that constitutes the phallus writ large. Where exactly the profundity comes in is not easy to pinpoint, but perhaps it inheres simply in making this subject, a sculptural form “pregnant with meaning,” as the artist eloquently puts it, visible. For an ever-present symbolic force, the phallus remains almost always unseen in polite society—something that has not been the case in cultures past. By revealing it at comically monumental size, Lucas harnesses and then, if you give her work time, slyly diminishes its power.
New Yorkers, who have not had the opportunity to see a solo exhibition of Lucas’ work in over a decade, would do well to note that this subject matter is hardly a passing fancy for the artist, or merely a wry attempt to get a rise out of audiences. On the contrary, Lucas has made a career of exploring the seemingly simple yet culturally much-entangled matter of sexual difference. The towering photograph of a woman with a cleaned fowl strapped suggestively over her pelvis, like the documentation of an epic banana snack, are inarguably born partly of spectacle, but they also serve as helpful signposts, pointing toward what the artist has looked at in the past and what we can probably expect more of in the future.
Nud Nob runs through April 26 at Gladstone Gallery on 24th Street.