For the last 44 years, Bonnie Lucas has lived and worked in her one-bedroom walk-up in SoHo. The apartment is one of those New York City finds that feels of a bygone era, a New York where you could still be a working artist, where the bathtub is, in fact, in the kitchen. (Lucas’ bathtub, for what it’s worth, is painted a soft pink that matches her floors.)
It’s here that the 73-year-old makes all her art, which in addition to paintings and drawings, are primarily collages made from purchased objects that she refigures into dense compositions that exalt and confound ideas of girlhood. Lucas’ collages are the kind of small-scale work where no space is wasted and every inch contains a tiny narrative and miracle. They are improvisational, ultra-feminine expressions of girlhood, where even marred bodies have a throughline of innocent joy.
“When I grew up, to buy a doll and to take it apart was considered being a bad girl. Purchased objects weren’t meant to be disassembled. They were meant to be used, looked at, valued,” Lucas tells NYLON. “I feel like a sort of a naughty girl with my scissors and pliers. It’s so much fun. It’s so much fun to do the opposite of what you’re told you can and can’t do.”
Though her numerous shows around the world have been written extensively about by critics, Lucas has been overlooked by the art world when it came to interest from collectors, museums, and larger institutions. But in the past few years, a new generation is discovering her work during the revamped cultural obsession with girlhood. ILY2 Gallery in Portland, Oregon showed a retrospective of Lucas’ work last May. Now, she’s represented by Eric Ruschman Gallery in Chicago, as well as New York City’s Trotter&Sholer, where earlier this month, Lucas opened her solo show Small Worlds, which runs through March 2.
Though Lucas’ works are objects of delicate beauty, they demand a deeper look, where they evoke an unsettling eeriness and tiny, hypnotic narratives unfold. In many of Lucas’ works, girls have lost their limbs; sometimes they have flowers for heads and branches for arms. Many of them are trapped, tied up, or upside down. Other times their dresses are raised a bit. “Life is dark,” Lucas says. “My art and the best art, I feel, has to reflect the complexities of real life.”
She makes these girls using thousands of items in her apartment, mainly things she’s culled from 99 cent and discount stores: Disney Princess ribbons, tiny pink plastic combs, little dolls, and a plastic sewing needle, to name a few of her treasures. There’s a hopeful undercurrent pulsing throughout Lucas’ work, because for all the disfigured girls, there are just as many intact ones. They are riding bicycles, cloaked in dresses and surrounded by flowers, or holding hands while walking through green fields dotted with pink flowers. “I break a lot of rules about girlhood: cutting things up, taking heads off dolls, creating characters with feminine attributes that aren’t sweet, that are in trouble, that lack limbs, that are buried,” Lucas says of this push and pull. “With all of the obstacles, with all of the things that didn’t go well or that I had to struggle with, I’m still able to be creative. I think it’s very hopeful work.”