My latest top lot is Sarah Lucas’s series of Muses, three of which were recently on display in the North Drawing Room of London’s Sir John Soane Museum. Originally commissioned for the Venice Biennale as part of her I SCREAM DADDIO exhibition, the series features ten bodies in plaster cast, for which Lucas used various female friends as models. Each body is literally ‘topless’ – a pair of legs chopped off at the waist – adopting a range of poses from the coquettish to the confrontational. The concept behind these works recall some of her previous pieces, including Hysterical Attack, which was on display at her 2000 exhibition, The Pleasure Principle, at the Freud Museum.
For me these pieces evoke so many different meanings and interpretations and it is this continuous thought-provocation that I love. The most overt theme plays on the idea of male voyeurism. By chopping off the head and torso of these muses, their sexual identities are brought to the fore (not to mention playing with the idea of ‘toplessness’). Despite most of the poses involving open legs and erotically-suggestive positionings over tables and chairs, the figures are far removed from invoking any sexual desire in the viewer. Instead they take on an almost intellectual capacity, perhaps achieved with the addition of the comical positioning of the cigarettes,which give them a self-contained status.
The everyday objects on which the muses are placed – tables, chairs… – form a crucial part of the artworks as a whole. Reminiscent of plinths, the furniture and the muses combine to echo and subvert the tradition of the reclining female nude, ubiquitous in so many pieces of Western Art. Their proximity to Soane’s extensive collection of antique plaster casts gives these topless nymphs a further critical position within the tradition of classical sculpture.
Aside from these associations, Lucas embraces the muses’ femininity – these are real women and these are their real bodies. Unlike so many of today’s pictures of women in the media, they are not airbrushed and glossed over with tummy rolls and bum dimples on full show. The chipping of some of the casts on particular works, such as the hole in the back of Michele, draws attention to the process of casting these women in plaster, emphasising their actual presence. Aesthetically and despite these traditionally-perceived ‘imperfections’, the shapes of the female forms are generally soft and tactile. The cigarettes inserted into various bodily crevaces add a violent and brutal quality, as they crudely cut across the smooth, muscular lines, creating visual contrast for the viewer.
But, most of all, these sculptures make me laugh, and I don’t think this is a wrong or inappropriate response to have. Such staged sexuality is so crude, so subversive, so critical that you don’t know how to respond to it; how to act. Their positioning within the traditional walls of John Soane’s prim and proper abode makes them even more shocking, and – as a consequence – all the more effective.