There is an irresistible force in art history whereby yesterday’s slash-and-burn sensationalist becomes today’s venerable bust. Once the generation that clutched its pearls dies away, everybody more or less becomes the peer of Raphael and Monet. The eroticism inherent in Auguste Rodin‘s sculpture was shocking in the late 19th century, but in the context of the Legion of Honor’s gilt ceilings and patrician names on the wall, Auguste’s sexual energy can lose itself in its own augustness.
Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, doesn’t appear to like the dichotomy between the reputations of his organization’s two major museums. In popular shorthand, the Legion can be regarded as regal and static while the de Young is regarded as edgier and more dynamic. This was never quite accurate, but Hollein wants to dispense with it altogether.
So we have “Sarah Lucas: Good Muse,” an understated title for a show that’s bound to elicit a fair amount of hate mail from longtime Legion patrons who like things just as they are, and who may not necessarily want to see a reclined nude with a cigarette coming out of its butt before they even check in at member services. Pairing the 55-year-old Lucas, best known as a member of the Young British Artists, with several galleries containing Rodin sculpture achieves two things. First, it’s of a piece with Lucas’ confrontational, Liz Phair-esque feminism. And second, it demonstrates that the Legion is not only committed to get us to re-examine the classics with fresh eyes, but it’s in a unique position to do it well. (It’s also the centennial of Rodin’s death, if you didn’t know.)
This is a show that would not work nearly as well in a gallery space with four white walls. Putting Lucas’ work in and among the statuary enhances its power. Take, for instance, a sculpture of a woman — or, rather, two skinny legs and breasts suspended from wires — atop a front-loading washing machine. The white appliance has a yolk-yellow door, and the breasts themselves are fried eggs. In isolation, such a piece could feel one-dimensional or merely snide, but it manages to reawaken the dormant erotics of everything around it and without the sense that Lucas wants to burn the entire art establishment to cinders. Fractured domesticity itself is the pedestal, the dais that supports the feedback loop between women’s bodies and women’s labors.
Another highly stylized figure, a pair of breasts with their own arms encircled around them, plus legs and an impossibly enormous phallus, sits in an old-style barber chair in another gallery. Against the parquet floor, it could be viewed like the height of inappropriateness, a Republican congressman using Auschwitz to grandstand about the importance of military force. But it’s a reflection on that same gradual force of historical re-categorization that turns salacious smut into respectable nudes — to say nothing of the evolution of the understanding of female sexuality in the academy.
Rodin’s sexual subtexts often got buried in allusions to Biblical figures and themes, but Lucas’ mixed media piece My Disease refuses to acquiesce to that agreed-upon dishonesty. A bent mattress skewered by fluorescent lights (with the electric cords blithely attached to the majestic light fixture above), it’s not quite a parable, but a frozen moment of libidinal intensity. And it’s best viewed from right next to one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, The Age of Bronze. The Young British Artists may be middle-aged, but their engagement with (dis-)respectability has not mellowed.
Sarah Lucas: Good Muse, July 15 – Sept. 27, at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. $15; famsf.org.