In 1990, the young artist Sarah Lucas, among a notorious group of recent Goldsmiths graduates, embarked on a series of unswervingly confrontational photographic self-portraits. The first was ‘Eating a Banana’ (1990), which was shot in black and white and shows the artist glowering at the camera from behind a floppy dark fringe. For the subsequent images, Lucas photographed herself as a truculent subject, dressed in androgynous garb (heavy boots and knackered jeans) and adopting loutish poses. A fag dangles from her lips, she splays her legs. She adds props laden with innuendo: fried eggs, a toilet, knickers and a fish. Lucas had been keen on the work of feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin while at Goldsmiths College, and cited her as an inspiration, particularly Dworkin’s controversial books Pornography (1979) and Intercourse (1987). Yet it was still something of an epiphany for Lucas when she saw ‘Eating a Banana’. She explained that it was the first time she realised that her masculine appearance – which she had until then perceived as a disadvantage – could be used in her art to interrogate gender stereotypes.
Lucas’ self portraits, made between 1990 and 1999 chart her career’s trajectory. In 1993, she rented a shop with Tracey Emin, selling paraphernalia; this was the setting for ‘Self Portrait with Mug of Tea’ (1993). Shot from below, her clumpy boots and blue jeans dominate the image, while in her hands she holds a mug and a cigarette. It is the archetypal image of a blue-collar worker on a tea break. Food is a recurrent theme in Lucas’ portraits, used as a substitute for body parts. In ‘Self Portrait with Fried Eggs’ (1996), she is seated on a chair, her breasts covered by two fried eggs. In ‘Got a Salmon On’ (1997), the artist stands outside a public toilet resting a large fish on her shoulder. Hanging down to her hip, it is a pun on the concept of the female erection. All of the self-portraits contest the objectification of the female body, making many direct references to pornography; in particular, ‘Eating a Banana’, and ‘Summer’ (1998), where Lucas is photographed wincing as beer froth is sprayed into her face, approximating an ejaculation. One of her last self portraits, ‘Selfish in Bed’ (2000), is also one of her funniest and most defiant. Made in the Clerkenwell studio she shared with her then boyfriend Angus Fairhust, she stands with hands thrust into pockets, daring the viewer to confront gender preconceptions; at her feet a grinning statue of a garden gnome gives the thumbs up.