‘The Last Great Adventure is You’, Tracey Emin’s most recent exhibition at the White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey, is beginning to gather pace as one of London’s most controversial and popular exhibitions this year, with free entry to anyone until it closes on 16th November.
Emin, who lives and works in East London, shot to fame in the 1980s with the Young British Artists movement. Her work has always stirred the art world and divided opinion – a division mirrored in its reception. Her first seminal piece, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’, was burnt in an act of arson at the 2004 Momart warehouse fire. Her second, ‘The Bed’, was sold for £2.2 million in July.
The White Cube is like a secret cave buried deep within the sprawling metropolis, not least because of the primal subject matter on show inside. The majority of the exhibition consists of self-portraits in watercolour, tapestry and bronze. Berated by many as child-like, her watercolours were painted in a matter of minutes, paint hastily thrown around the paper. The skill, as any painter will tell you, comes in judging the precise proportion of liquid in the brush – too little and the brushstrokes will not reach their end points, too much and the paper will be flooded and the painting ineffectual. Added to this is the complexity of tone and how much pigment sits suspended in different areas of the painting. Her brush strokes are pure expressionism, free flowing and bold. You feel they may have been completed minutes before you enter the gallery.
The body has been a subject of Emin’s work through her career and considering that it is a somewhat classical subject matter in western art, it is surprising that this has proved controversial and off-putting to many. The works can too often be misinterpreted as crude, when in fact they are more about catharsis. The bed, with its empty vodka bottles, cigarette ends and bloody used condoms, was attacked as a celebration of modern art’s excess, of its focus on sex and drugs. The inception of these works actually came from a moment of depression and loss, a time when the artist had undergone broken relationships and an abortion. Emin had taken to drink and was left stranded in the bed for four days. Getting out of the bed, and later returning to the room, Emin transported the bed into a gallery space, giving closure to a dangerous period of her life. In a recent review of the show in The Daily Mail, Quentin Letts describes Emin as ‘known for swearing on television, getting drunk, boasting about her sexual conquests and making a fortune from her ‘artwork’ of an unmade bed soiled by used condoms’, as an artist only concerned with making money. This reluctance to engage with the exhibition is both disappointing and frankly, lazy.
All of Emin’s nudes are self-portraits. Gone is the chauvinistic ‘male gaze’, which has dominated paintings of women for centuries; the traditional sexist kind of pomp that Emin’s critics all openly revel in. She brings us into a deeply personal space of complete exposure, but the works have a feeling of possession: that her body is entirely her own. Raped as a young girl, Emin’s work doesn’t shy away from the subject of sexual danger and suffering. In one room a huge wooden table stretches out, on one side a sculpture of a lamb, on the other, a lion. Many of the figures in this exhibition are contorted, their faces left blank, or their eyes hidden behind shadows. ‘Crucified and Strung’ is a huge fabric of a woman, hands drawn together, her body left dangling. Are we looking at crucifixion, or at a body laying down flat and at ease? These juxtapositions haunt the show.
Specific to this show is Emin’s revised approach to figure painting. The artist admits that before this exhibition she was painting ‘spindly little stick girls’. ‘I realised that all the time for years I’ve been drawing my own body but my body as it was thirty years ago. I hadn’t actually moved on with how my body is: the fat, the rolls’. With her tapestries, the fabric ripples and undulates – almost symptomatic of this new appreciation of the body.
Emin will continue to attract hostility wherever she goes. Quentin Letts’ most short-sighted remark he makes is that ‘the thing is just so badly finished, so clumsy and uncertain in its execution’, going on to celebrate the Rembrandt exhibition that has just opened at the National Gallery. Ironically, Rembrandt’s critics once berated the king of self-portraiture for his final flourishes of paint, his finish, and splashes of expressionist paint, in an identically inept manner to the way in which he has described Emin.
I have not covered the incredible bronze work, the neon or sculpture but be assured that this exhibition will offer question and thought to even the most reluctant gallery walker. Emin combines the extreme observation of a Lucian Freud with the emotional depth of an Eduard Munch. Modern art is attacked for its ambiguity, its vanity, and the impression that its creator is absent from the work. These criticisms cannot be levelled at this exhibition however: it offers as deep a personal introspection as can be rendered in paint.