If the Legion of Honor’s grandiose marble architecture evokes a regal sincerity plucked from the past, then British sculptor Sarah Lucas’ work, installed through September between the building’s towering columns, functions like a pleasurable punchline.
Picture: In the center of the museum’s circular foyer sits a horizontal freezer, upon which lays a cement mold of a lounging figure, ass in the air and cigarette in the anus — as if smoking away the institution’s perceived self-seriousness.
Lucas is known for making bawdy sculptures that expose our crude conceptions of gender and bodies, using humor and androgyny to disarm the objectifying male gaze. The celebrated artist’s work appears at the museum for Good Muse, on view through Sept. 17, and constitutes her first major exhibition in an American museum.
The show is the second of two curated in response to Auguste Rodin: The Centenary Installation, which featured about 50 Rodin pieces from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's collection in honor of the 100th anniversary of the sculptor's death. While the Rodin exhibition officially ended on April 9, the majority of the works included remain on view.
Rather than giving Lucas her own gallery, curator Claudia Schmuckli strategically placed her pieces throughout the Rodin installation (and in nearby galleries featuring classic paintings), a move that simultaneously breathes fresh life into Rodin’s figures and gives Lucas’ an easy target to mock.
Pairings such as this one always have the potential to be gimmicky, setting up dichotomies — classic and contemporary, male and female, phallocentric and feminist — that foreground spectacle over intellectual provocation. Good Muse doesn’t necessarily avoid that trap, but dives into it with such deliberate grace that it doesn’t feel cheap.
Instead of simply instrumentalizing Lucas' work as an example of the feminist counter-gaze, Good Muse unleashes her sculptures to play -- amid an environment that underlines its intentions from every angle. With prominent placement in every gallery in which it appears, there’s a clear sense that the Schmuckli takes the work seriously, and is earnest in her intentions of inciting conversation around the way that bodies are eroticized in revered work such as Rodin’s.
In the main gallery, small to medium bronze figures by Rodin presented on pedestals exhibit incredible technical prowess and an appreciation for the human form — in all its idealized musculature — as a poetic medium for relaying emotional states. With their tough and shiny surfaces, they feel like everlasting relics destined to forever uphold a static sense of How Bodies Should Be.
But between them sit seven Floppy Toilets by Lucas: scrunched urinals cast in orange and yellow resin sitting atop mini fridges. Translucent and almost glowing in the gallery lights, the sculptures look like Jell-O molds left out in the sun too long. Drooping onto themselves, they resemble the folds in a stomach -- a general abstraction of curves and bulges that question what constitutes a body.
In the center of this scene, two massive concrete casts of legs in high heels prescribe a femme sense of domination that’s unbothered by the precarity of standing on stilts. And at the back, three toned and naked figures from Rodin’s Gates of Hell, which he worked on throughout the last two decades of his life, are arranged together in a dramatic pose. Lucas adds three of her own figures: floppy dolls made of stuffed pantyhose hang hilariously from various parts of the historic bronze, inserting a sense of suppleness and flesh that Rodin’s piece leaves out.
In that last instance, the interaction between the works begins to feel a little audacious, but in a way that’s difficult not to simply eat up. With sculptures seeping into surrounding galleries, it’s as if Lucas is punking all of Western art historical discourse, showing up to some fancy gala uninvited. It’s an exhilarating curatorial choice that exhibits an admirable sense of humility on the part of the museum. Ultimately, Good Muse offers up the Legion's entire collection to questioning through a feminist lens, risking more conservative patrons feeling confused.
Perhaps it’s my personal preferences, but the show’s only distracting shortcoming was that I found it difficult to appreciate Rodin’s work in the presence of Lucas’, which, despite being far less realistic, exuded a potent bodily presence that made it hard to look away. The Legion of Honor’s marquee statue is a cast of Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker, which appears alone in a grand courtyard at the museum’s entrance. Bent forward in deep thought with his chin on his clenched fist, the statue is an international symbol of male intellect and philosophical inquiry. But I was more struck by Lucas’ INNAMEMORABILIAMBUM, installed in a corner gallery: A soft figure with crossed arms leans back in a chair, a three-foot erect phallus protruding from its crotch into the air. Just another take.
'Good Muse' is on view at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through Sept. 17. For more information, click here.