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29 June 2005

From: Melissa Bell
Category: Art
Date: 29 June 2005


“Mad Tracey from Margate”

When most people think about sex, it is usually in a private day dream or discussed amongst friends, but not Tracey Emin. ‘When I Think About Sex…’ is the title of her current exhibition at White Cube, London, and judging by her prolific output, she thinks about sex a lot, graphically and in public. The artist states, “When I think about sex, I make art…I do not set out to shock. I set out to have a dialogue with myself”. Do these works convey the narcissistic rantings of a desperate, sex-obsessed heavy drinker, or do they illustrate the complexities of the human condition with poetic and graphic realism?

Emin employs a range of diverse media to convey her loneliness, vulnerability and melancholia and, on occasion, her drunkenness. This exhibition includes Emin’s now traditional media - appliqué blankets, monoprints and neons, but she has also returned to painting as another vehicle for expression. In a group of six small, intimate canvasses using gouache, watercolour and pencil, the traditional medium implies a more serene, sensual side to the artist – perhaps this ‘bad girl’ of Brit art is finally laying to rest her much publicized brash, crude persona. The exhibition has a calmer feel – gone are the bold pink and blue neons, colourful fabrics and texts that scream out slogans such as ‘drunken bitch’ and ‘Mad Tracey from Margate’. It appears that there is a creative departure from her previous work.

The familiar blankets are still on display, however, the fabrics are a patchwork of muted tones mixed with delicate lace and fine embroidery. These works initially give the impression that the artist has perhaps triumphed over her demons, but on closer inspection, we see the same pin-board collection of derogatory insults that speak of self-inflicted purgatory. The vocabulary is so familiar now, that I’m no longer touched by the pathos. The artist’s fragile state of mind is quite uncomfortably embodied in a new sculpture entitled ‘Self Portrait’ [2005], where a metal bath is filled with old bamboo sticks, barbed wire, and a neon tracing the curve of Emin’s inner thighs nestled inside. What is compelling about Emin’s work is the emotional complexity conveyed in simple and sometimes child-like ways, often using embroidery and sewing, mediums associated with femininity and domesticity. Drawing features strongly in this show, with a clear homage to Egon Schiele, and these awkward and often explicit graphic studies are perhaps the most successful works in the show. The intimacy and immediacy absorbs you into Emin’s world with pathos and poignancy.

I approached this exhibition with anticipation to see what the infamous Ms Emin would deliver next. To find the same repetitious expletives scrawled across rosettes and trussed up with lace; more sketchy, neurotic self-portraits and confessional ramblings, and another wooden structure dominating the central space entitled ‘It’s Not the Way I Want to Die’ [2005], reminiscent of her Helter Skelter ‘Self Portrait’ from her solo show at White Cube in 2001 – I can’t help asking what’s really new here? Perhaps it is exactly this recurring catharsis that actually points to a redemptive reading of her work. Her continual entrapment in what she undoubtedly feels as the purgatory of her mental state and the result of tragic events, and her therapeutic use of art-making is an attempt to try to confront, cope with and ultimately expel these demons.

Emin’s artworks are a powerful force in the art market, fetching increasingly high prices, so this preoccupation of works that scream of pain, suffering and humiliation run counter to what we know of Emin as a celebrated and financially successful artist. How long can Tracey Emin continue to use herself as a muse, and her tragic past as her source material when we’ve seen it all before (perhaps more poignantly in the work of Frida Khalo currently showing at Tate Modern)? A change of palette is a minor and disappointing ‘development’. But with visitor figures at the gallery topping 10,000 in the first week, there is no doubt that Tracey Emin has a huge fan base in the UK and her work clearly has a strong resonance within public consciousness and a universal quality. So I leave it to you, is it Mad Tracey from Margate, or Tracey Emin, one of Britain’s great artists? Answers on a saucy seaside postcard please….

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