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‘Self-Portrait with Skull’ (1996)

Who could have guessed in the early 1990s how Sarah Lucas, the brashest, bluntest and lewdest of the Young British Artists, would sustain a two-decade career? The artist who emerged into the public gaze with an aggressively posed, don’t care grainy black-and-white self-portrait photograph called “Eating a Banana” has evolved more unexpectedly than any other YBA. The Angry Young Woman is now a mid-career sculptor of integrity, formal inventiveness and the courage to change and develop. Her first London retrospective, the Whitechapel Gallery’s Sarah Lucas: Situation, is a compelling record of that journey.

Her early work has never been more persuasively displayed nor looked so strangely nostalgic. In the large opening room, against walls lined with collages of tabloid titillation, Lucas’s crude found-object sculptures pile up in a theatrical mise-en-scène viscerally evocative of London street life in the post-Thatcher years: raw, poor, divisive and furious. Glaring down on it all is an enormous self-portrait of a lanky-haired, macho-looking Lucas slumped among the detritus of a junk shop near where she was born in 1962, daughter of a milkman and a cleaner who discouraged her children from doing any homework.

“Bitch” reduces the female form to two melons and a kipper hanging from a white table. “Bunny Gets Snookered” is a pair of etiolated legs and drooping rabbit ears, manipulated out of stuffed tights and clamped to a chrome chair: a mockery of Playboy bunnies and an allusion to Lewis Morley’s celebrated shot of model Christine Keeler naked astride a black Arne Jacobsen chair.

For “Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab”, recreated daily over several weeks in 1992, Lucas bought a kebab – shredded meat falling out of an open pitta bread – every morning, fried a couple of eggs on her portable stove, and set them up on a table as slang stand-ins for breasts and female genitalia. At the end of each day she gave the food to a tramp, then started afresh – until a Jaguar drew up and Charles Saatchi paid £2,000 for the installation, now in Damien Hirst’s collection.

‘Nice Tits’ (2011)

Ugliness is beautifully curated here by gallery director Iwona Blazwick, juxtaposing old and more recent work to draw attention to Lucas’s formal qualities. The curves and bends of the cast polyurethane toilets in “The Old in Out” series, for example, sit alongside the looping, classically informed, ambivalently gendered body parts of the nylon-tight sculptures of “NUD”, begun in 2009, which suggest both hot flesh and cold stone. The tragic and the farcical sit together: “Unknown Soldier”, a neon tube propped between a pair of concrete boots, and “Still Life”, an upturned bicycle supporting cut-outs of a headless naked man with a banana at his crotch.

Sexualising minimalism and conceptualism into narratives of birth, copulation and death, Lucas’s running gag is to make everything into a big tits or cock and bull story. Brutality courses through the show as well as bawdiness but the imagery is too direct – hams trussed in knickers bleeding on to a mattress in “I might be shy but I’m still a pig”; the lemons and chicken dangling in “Sex Baby Bed Base” – to be didactic: simply, this is how it is, Lucas says.

Inevitably, repetition blunts the impact but, as with early Damien Hirst – his shark, his sheep in “Away from the Flock” – Lucas’s best sculptures are unanswerable in their radical attitude to realism, their defiant, fleshy physicality. They address timeless themes but, seen at a distance of 20 years, are also of their epoch, reflecting a Thatcherite legacy of materialism, individualism, stark divisions of class and sex, and tabloid salaciousness.

Like Tracey Emin, Lucas will be remembered for giving expression for the first time in visual art to British female working class life. That voice had been so entirely absent that to speak at all it had to scream – notably in the bleak documentation of sexual experiences. “Au Naturel” (1994), Lucas’ stained mattress with a couple of melons and a bucket on one side and an erect cucumber slit between two oranges on the other, was made four years before Emin’s “My Bed”. Blazwick places “Au Naturel” as centrepiece of a small “Red Chamber”, surrounded by monumental but absurd symbols of masculinity: crushed cars, wallpaper photographs of nude men whose genitalia are covered with edible replacements – biscuits and a bottle of milk; a beer can spurting white froth. Male power, and the emotional charge of the “red room” – a motif of inner terror for women writers and artists from Charlotte Brontë to Louise Bourgeois – is here ridiculed, tamed and diffused.

‘Dacre’ (2013)

Already their respective beds – starkly formal versus messily autobiographical – showed the difference between Lucas’s sculptural sensibility and Emin’s emotional impetus. That formal rigour allowed Lucas to stay grounded while so many of her YBA peers have failed to steer a course between shock tactics and personality cult. Lucas, by contrast, shunned the limelight, and in 2008 she left London permanently to live in Suffolk, in the former home of composer Benjamin Britten. The final, upstairs gallery at the Whitechapel, lit from above by natural daylight, dramatises how this quintessentially urban artist has responded to her new environment.

An opening up of space and the light of the sea are palpable. The giant phalluses “White Nob”, “Eros” and “Priapus”, constructed in plaster or cement, resemble vast, weathered stones or rocks on the beach. Portraits outlined in cigarettes on brown paper suggest flotsam and jetsam against the water. Moving from found object or assemblage to casting, Lucas has channelled her tights sculptures from the claustrophobic bunny figures trapped in chairs, via the abstracted “NUDS”, to the liquefied, elegantly androgynous 2013 bronzes “Hoolian”, “Realidad”, Nahuiollin” and “Nduda”, evoking limbs sensuously entwined, with shiny, harmonising surfaces smoothed out as if by the waves.

Bronze implies gravitas, joining the canon. In the catalogue, Blazwick proposes that Lucas’s “sculptural compass is shifting from Duchamp’s urinal to Brancusi’s ‘Kiss’ ”. Brancusi’s sculptural language, though, is a hundred years old. As an artist marshalling everyday domestic life, Lucas in the 1990s seized Duchamp’s pioneering idea of found objects to make a significant if unlovely contribution to the repositioning of the female body in late 20th-century sculpture. Her 21st-century cast objects follow Brancusi as refined exercises in form, balance, shape, texture. They are still sparked by sex but the anger has gone – and with it the work’s urgency and originality.

‘Sarah Lucas: Situation’ Whitechapel Gallery, London until December 15.

whitechapelgallery.org

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