“I’ll just switch Maggi on for you.”
I’m being shown round the Jerwood exhibition The Quick & the Dead, by its co-curator Victoria Howarth.
It might, more prosaically, have been named ‘When Maggi Met Sarah’, as it was a chance meeting between portrait artist Maggi Hambling and YBA Sarah Lucas that sparked the friendship that underscores the show.
The introduction was made by Soho dandy Sebastian Horsley, at the Colony Rooms on Dean Street, in October 2005. Both women were celebrating their birthdays at the private after-hours club. It must have been quite a night.
What Victoria is switching on is the sculpture Magi (sic, 2012), of Hambling, by Lucas. The description of the materials used will help you picture it: ‘coat hanger, lightbulbs, steel wire, electric cable, toilet bowl’. Victoria suggests that the bulbs represent Hambling’s eyes; in his catalogue notes James Cahill suggests they are her breasts. Whatever the case, it’s very Sarah Lucas, an artist whose remit has always been to shock, more than charm, to elicit a response.
Hambling’s touchée is more lifelike. The oils Portrait of the Artist Sarah Lucas and Sarah Lucas II (both 2013) flank the sculpture. The first – all trademark colourful swirls and unfinished business – captures an intense look of vulnerability in the face of the younger artist. The second places her framed portrait alongside a pile of props typical of her oeuvre: a fried egg; stuffed breasts; fruit; wine glasses.
The fourth work you see, in the first of four rooms, is a frame containing two works by Sebastian Horsley, including a photo of his hand with a nail through it. It’s a stylised screen grab from a film made by Lucas when he was nailed to a cross in the Philippines in 2000.
Lucas makes a sculpture of Hambling; Hambling paints Lucas; Lucas films Horsley. The Quick & the Dead is an exhibition about how artist-friends see one another, and how they see themselves: two other members of what became something of a gang are represented in the show, Lucas’ partner Julian Simmons, and German photographer Juergen Teller. Simmons contributes two framed eyes, staring out from the middle of two sets of concentric circles; Teller offers a huge (1.5 x 2 metre) portrait of Hambling, and another of himself, standing naked by his father’s graveside, swigging beer and smoking a fag.
It’s Teller’s image of Hambling that forms the centrepiece of the exhibition, a rare vision of the artist at work, half her face hidden by the back of the canvas she is working on, her mascara-framed left eye challenging the viewer. On the opposite wall are charcoal drawings of Teller she was working on when the photo was taken.
It’s all very meta, then, but there’s much more to it than playful self-reference. The death of Horsley – from a drug overdose in 2010 – looms over the show, and a whole room is dedicated to Hambling’s poignant from-memory portraits of him, painted while she was in mourning.
Image: Maggi Hambling, Self-portrait, 2017 © the artist
The Quick and the Dead is on at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, till 6th Jan