Prop a woman on an armchair, paint a picture, repeat. There’s a potted history of modern art shaped around the presence of a woman before an artist – by her being there but not by her being. Madame Cézanne: stoically enduring her husband’s marathon sittings, petrifying within the sedimentation of his doubt. Madame Matisse: the patient mannequin, subjected to Henri’s successive exercises in costume and colour. Fernande Olivier, because no one was ever really Madame Picasso: a deconstructed tangram of Cubist facets, her features dissolving into abstracted anonymity.
Something different, but not unrelated, happens when Sarah Lucas offers a woman a seat. Since 1997 she’s been making “Bunnies”, limp schemas of the female body formed from tights stuffed with fabric, twisted like balloon animals, draped and knotted around chairs. The chair is alternately a throne and a trap, elevating and entangling the body. Bar stools, patio chairs, lobby seating: women and chairs, both of them occasional furniture, to be used, in the tautological definition of the term, “as the occasion demands”. Slender of limb and bulbous of breast; nipples and vulva brushed into erogenous redness; headless, brainless, voiceless – the Bunnies convert an old studio tool, the lay figure, into home-made sex dolls.
For Project 1: Sarah Lucas, the National Gallery of Australia presents 10 recent iterations of the series dating from between 2018 and 2020, one of which, Tittipussidad (2018), the museum has acquired.
There are two variants of the Bunny on display. The familiar soft, stuffed versions are knotted around and clipped to chairs. And there are materially lavish and technically complex versions in which all of that hardens: the spongy bodies are cast in bronze, the plush seats in concrete. Willem de Kooning once said that flesh was the reason that oil paint was invented; it’s all about translucent malleability. By the same logic, anatomy was the reason that sculpture was invented; the body is a scaffold, a mechanism. But Lucas’s bodies are boneless structures, even if they’ve been given the tensile strength of bronze. They’re fluid and formless – not an anatomical body but one that speaks of corporeality as social and psychic experience.
While the installation is dubbed the Dollhouse (ironically but questionably) in the online virtual tour, the display is more high-end boutique meets Baroque grotto. The orchestration is astute. In the Baroque garden, artificial caves offered grotesque figures to tickle the fancy of aristocratic strollers. In the luxury zones of the contemporary shopping mall, the same figure of pleasure-in-excess reigns.
Lucas melds the two. Her distorted Bunnies are a new Baroque – etymologically, a distorted pearl – the monstrous feminine haunting art’s pleasure garden. Decor and the indecorous fuse. The chair-plinths are a compendium of forms and styles suitable for office, kitchen, garden, airline lounge and swank foyer. There’s a whiff of the Bauhaus, echoes of mid-century Modern, and the halfway stylish moves of mass market imitations. Likewise the shoes. There are branded high street options, such as Converse and Birkenstock, alongside cheap glamour knockoffs made in China: Sweet Suede, “You’ve nailed your outfit, all that’s left is the footwear”.
Across the room a muted palette of flesh tones, grey concrete and aged wood is punctuated by localised sensual effects. Burred and brushed bronze surfaces glisten sharply, the patent leather of high heels shimmers, pastel plinths add a showroom touch. All these props – the bodies, the chairs, the shoes – have a typological impulse to them, as if they are illustrations in a fashion magazine or department store catalogue modelling the modern woman at work and play, at home and on holiday. The exception that proves the rule is Dick’ead (2018): there the Bunny is draped on a barber’s chair, with all its evocations of preening masculinity, and sprouts a phallus the size of a tent pole. Take a seat, choose your gender.
Shown in galleries and art fairs, the Bunnies goad critics into street talk. It’s all ladettes, Geordie Shore and Sunday morning, coming down. Display them in a museum and engagement is shaped by genealogy. Lucas’s figures of the feminine are in dialogue with Hans Bellmer’s Surrealist dolls, Picasso’s biomorphic bathers and de Kooning’s mangled pin-ups. Within canonical art history, the female body is so ubiquitously trafficked that Lucas can reference artists she’s likely never heard of: for an Australian viewer, it’s hard not to think of Brett Whiteley’s wobbly Play-Doh erotica.
And that’s what lies at the heart of her project. She’s not name-checking the masters so much as messing with the cultural algorithm that drives their version of the feminine. Lucas gives you nine women (10 if you count the photographic self-portraits papering the gallery walls), but you’ll see a shedload of other women – draped, folded, bent out of shape – on the rest of your visit. Women are part of the furniture in any museum narrative and Lucas is focused on rearranging the seating plan.
Elsewhere in the building, Australian artist Natalya Hughes takes up the running in her explorations of de Kooning’s Woman series. Her seated woman, Eileen From Potts Point, like Lucas’s, is relocated from the Pantheon into everyday life. For de Kooning, flesh – painting’s raison d’être – seems to demand a constant moulding of the body, a probing and poking at its surface that registers in viscous smears and streaks of paint. For Hughes, this makes for pattern more than corporeality. A de Kooning can be translated into Photoshop layers, schematised into repeated decorative models, like so many textiles and veneers. And in that process, the nature of women’s presence in the Modernist canon becomes apparent: not her corporeality on its own terms but as an alibi for the artist’s practice.
As a child I learnt something about a woman’s capacity to declare her presence from a different Eileen, my great aunt. She was a model of her type: tiny, blue-haired, constantly emerging from the kitchen with freshly baked treats. But she was also a bit of a card. One evening she pulled a stocking over her head, crept into the lounge room and scared the shit out of my nana while she watched Tony Barber’s Great Temptation on television.
I was maybe 10 years old but what I remember most vividly is how that one thing, the stocking over the head, so dramatically changed her appearance and presence. I can still see her compressed features, crushed together against the nylon, like a face pressed against a pane of glass. It doesn’t take much to make a body radically shift its familiar terms. Stretch it, squeeze it and there’s the uncanny, creeping out of the unconscious and upending the norm.
Sarah Lucas has been doing this consistently for the past 30 years. And she’s been saying the same thing all along: “Fuck you.” In Australia, that might translate as, “What are you fuckin’ looking at?” Which is a question that’s not asked often enough of art museum visitors. At the NGA, it’s posed by 12 Sarah Lucases glaring sullenly from a wraparound photo mural. She’s eating a banana, 12 ways. Freud once batted away his own traffic in the phallus and its surrogates with the self-serving assertion that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. But in Lucas’s hands, in our eyes, a banana is always a dick. Her assertion is a simple one: “I’m eating a banana. So fuck you and the male gaze you rode in on.”
Project 1: Sarah Lucas is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until April 18.
EXHIBITION Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, December 17–May 1
THEATRE A Christmas Carol
Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, until December 24
MULTIMEDIA Jean-Luc Molène and Teams
MONA, Hobart, December 17–May 9
FESTIVAL Factory Summer Festival
Stadium Park, Perth, until January 1
VISUAL ART A Sense of Movement: Japanese Sports Posters
The Japan Foundation, Sydney, until January 22
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until December 12
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Dolled up".
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