An orange blow-up body reclines in a dentist chair, holding its see-through plastic breasts with pink rubber-glove hands. This is Bruce Lacey’s freakish automoton, ‘The Womaniser’.
It’s odd in a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it way and it comes as little surprise to learn that Lacey, now in his eighties, was most active in the 1960s and built weird and wonderful props for the likes of Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine.
I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a talented all-rounder in the art world. Lacey’s paintings are pretty good, his robots and assemblages intricate and provocative, he can sew, and his performances and rituals are both eccentric and deeply influenced by an innate sense of Britishness. He can not only visualise an idea but also bring it to life through painting, creation, sewing or performance.
Lacey’s father was a painter and decorator; his mother a milliner. Judging by the contents of his toy box, they were a well-off family who had time to attend theatre and variety performances. When he left school, Lacey joined the Royal Navy to train as an electrician but soon contracted tuberculosis. He spent three years convalescing and re-assessing his life. It was at that point that he began to rediscover a love of painting and decided to be an artist – studying at Hornsey School of Art and the Royal College of Art.
What interested me most about the show was this sense of a life re-imagined. When Lacey was convalescing with a life-threatening illness, he had time to analyse what it was he truly wanted. He decided that a nine to five existence being paid by someone else to do their bidding was not for him – but that he would make his own way as an artist. And then he went and grabbed that new life with both hands.
Two of his ritual paintings on sackcloth are entitled ‘The Bubble’ and ‘Living Outside the Bubble’ – this idea of escaping the daily grind and being stimulating and controversial pervades Lacey’s work. His new life was that of artist and performer, expressing himself freely across multiple media.
And as lives go, his has had some pretty wacky highlights – certainly something to tell his 12 kids. This is a man who has had his front room on show outside the Serpentine Gallery; ridden a stuffed camel outside the Houses of Parliament; arrived at his first retrospective at Whitechapel Art Gallery in a stripped aircraft fuselage and full flying gear; painted the Wyward Farm Market Cross in a pretend snowstorm and presented talks entitled ‘A Silly Bugger Artist’s Life at the Taxpayer’s Expense’.
I’m starting to wonder if living outside the bubble is the way to go…
>> The Bruce Lacey Experience runs until 2 January 2013 at The Exchange in Penzance.