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Artist Sarah Lucas takes all the fun out of being naughty

Sarah Lucas, "Eating a Banana," 1990. Black-and-white photograph. (Sarah Lucas/Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ)

NEW YORK — In a 1990 video, artist Sarah Lucas sits at a small table in a garden and eats a banana and a sausage, both of them phallic symbols, with the obvious intent that she is doing something sly and naughty. At one point, in the middle of this adolescent provocation, she looks up at the camera, thus engaging the viewer, and gives a tiny little smile. If you find that smile charming, then you will probably find Lucas’s work everything that her fans have said of it: bold, raw, crude and funny. If the smile doesn’t compensate for the banality and poverty of the rest of the video, much of her work will seem equally insufferable.

Lucas, 56, rose up as part of a loosely defined cohort of creators known as the Young British Artists, who were often shown together in influential London exhibitions beginning in the late 1980s. Like some in the group, the English artist has accentuated her working-class affiliations, and, like others, she has a taste for the crude, sexual and scatological. One of her most important early works, seen in an exhibition at the New Museum, is called “Penis Nailed to a Board,” a 1991 collage using tabloid coverage of a scandal involving men who met for sadomasochistic sex. Another piece in this first U.S. survey of the artist’s work includes lists of words scrawled on paper, many unprintable, others insults often hurled at gay and lesbian people. Another early piece features a chair with a penis attached to the seat.

She has said that, both in her sense of self and in the work she makes, she is “blokey,” which seems to mean she is focused on sexuality, and especially male genitalia, in a locker-room sort of way, along with a love of bodily fluids, toilets, cigarettes and bathroom stall graffiti. There is, apparently, a feminist component to this, as though the artist might remedy centuries of artistic exploitation of women by substituting a manic reiteration of the penis as subject matter. But the work is curiously empty, and the response it elicits doesn’t even have the pleasure of scandal, at least not after the first few penises, or the cast lower-body forms smoking cigarettes from the anus, or the wall covered in desiccated raw eggs, or the Jesus figure plastered with cigarettes.

Lucas’s work has ascended in the art world, not through anything particularly interesting or substantial in itself, but because it empowers a discourse that makes her an appealing figure to some critics, gallerists and collectors. She is authentic, she is “ballsy,” she is daring.

“The sense of strength radiating from Lucas’s often-deadpan approach and her insistence on depicting the corporality and inevitable flaws of the human form in ways that some viewers may find disconcerting do not overshadow the genuine vulnerability in her work,” reads a sentence from one of the catalogue essays. And so it seems she has positioned herself in a precise and productive place: as the artist who makes work that needs protecting because it causes scandal or gives offense.

Some artists need protecting from time to time, when they stray into difficult or fraught subject matter. But Lucas has created a body of work that is designed from beginning to end to fit the category of art that must be defended from bourgeois or masculine repression. Critics might write about how this work “interrogates” sexuality or class, but, in fact, it does nothing of the sort. It exists simply to prove once again that some people will find some things offensive, and when it has sparked that reaction, it has succeeded on the narrow terms of its purpose and intention. This category is so constricted, it must be difficult to keep making art to fill it, especially given all the competition and the natural inflationary cycle when it comes to finding images and ideas that will provoke an audience that isn’t jaded, just bored.

In another video, “Egg Massage,” made in 2015, the artist’s companion Julian Simmons is seen lying naked on a table while eggs are broken and drooled onto him. They pool onto his body and around it on the table, while a photographer moves in and out to capture the ritual. Again, one waits for the substance of work, something that will bring this little drama to a crisis, infuse it with meaning or direct our thoughts to some deeper content. But the only thing that is of interest is the photographer, who isn’t really necessary because there is already someone else filming the artist slathering her partner with eggs. Instead, the photographer’s presence is meant to accentuate the role of voyeur, and exploiter of the man who is now covered with eggs.

After all of Lucas’s provocations, this is one of the few things that is truly disturbing, because it suggests the hollowness of the putative critique implied in her work. The goal isn’t to undo old forms of exploitation or traditional gender ideas; rather, it is simply to invert them. She posits not equality of the sexes nor a world beyond gender categories. Instead, she argues that humiliating a man is somehow redemptive, as though the point is simply to exchange the categories of victim and victimized, not eliminate the victimization.

That’s not a revolution, it’s revenge. But it’s typical of much of Lucas’s work, which lacks a vision of the world beyond a working-class woman’s peculiar appropriation of blokey-ness.

Perhaps all of this was funnier 30 years ago. Today, it just seems like a waste of energies that might actually have moved the world forward.

Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel is on view at the New Museum in New York through Jan. 20.