Some artists use their art to put up a facade for the world; others seek to bear themselves whole. The art of Tracey Emin – who has a remarkable exhibition of new work at the White Cube Bermondsey, London – undoubtedly falls into the latter category. The title, A Fortnight of Tears, has apparently been rolling around in the artist’s head for fifteen years, distilled by the recent death of her mother, but first kindled by a relationship breakup in her thirties when, she explains, “I was crying for the loss of my future. Then when my mum died, I was crying for my past.”
Emin’s work often get described as ‘confessional’ because it deals in honest expositions of her own personal and tumultuous history. Since the 1980s, when she emerged as the incalcitrant face of the Young British Art movement, Emin has mined her own traumatic past to produce work that is in turns startling, controversial and affecting. She has been public about her fractured childhood, experiences of abortion and teenage promiscuity. For her entire career, which reached a high-point with her controversial My Bed (1998) – a coruscating self-portrait through an unmade bed spilling over with cigarette butts, Polaroid camera shots, condoms, vodka bottles, bloodied underwear, and so on – Emin has turned again and again to her own life for subject matter. In this current exhibition, across dozens of paintings, videos and several huge bronze sculptures, she takes up the same pursuit, examining bouts of personal fear, self-loathing and ongoing insomnia to further entrench herself in the confessional idiom.
Now entering the third stage of her life – Emin has said “Our lives are in a trilogy. I’m in my last bit, so I’ve got to try and get it right” – her approach to making art seems to firmly inhabit a mode of grown-up contemplation, albeit of the unflinching variety. There is a depth to the work here that speaks of maturity. The White Cube makes the case for Emin’s wider importance by stating that her work “resonates with the feminist tenets of the ‘personal as political’”. And in the age of #metoo, Emin’s dialogue with her own experiences acquires a deeper significance.
The gallery space is broad and open, and lends itself perfectly as a benign backdrop to Emin’s outpouring. Paintings are given swathes of wall-space to articulate their message, which they do sometimes in a whisper and sometimes in a howl. As a visitor, you can stand up close or retreat to open floor, depending on the decibels.
In a painting such as It was all too Much (2018) the colour palette is mainly confined to pinks and reds, where a gestural weave of lines is suggestive of a naked figure in some sort of sexual distress. Where the figure’s head is painted, a coarse black and purple scribble erupts, as if the face has been redacted by emotional necessity.
In the dead of night I wanted you (2018) achieves its effect by the application of thick and thin brush marks that thrash against each other in a bruising clamour for canvas space. The paired-down colour palette – red and black this time – surrender any formal complexity for a more direct struggle between form and content.
Emin’s painting technique tends to use a watery diluted paint that submits to the texture of the canvas. The figures that result are scratched into existence, apparitional and faceless. They float in tawny mists of empty canvas space, without a definite beginning or end. In terms of breaking new ground, there are few surprises. To allow paint to splash and drip down a canvas is nothing inventive, but Emin manages to use these marks to forge her own grammar of anguish. They Held Me Down While He Fucked Me 1976 and But You Never Wanted me (both 2018) are two more works that stand out. Indeed, throughout the exhibition, paintings that are sparse and spectral manage to reverberate with a more universal meaning.
Her candid approach occupies a different sort of intensity in the Insomnia Room installation. Here, the walls are filled with a double-row of large photos, close-up selfies taken in the midst of sleepless nights. Emin has apparently suffered insomnia for the last ten years, and has been capturing photos of the experience for the last four. Initially, the show of narcissism is monumental, since the room at first resembles a temple-sized Instagram page. Yet Emin’s achievement is that she elicits compassion in the viewer without pulling too heavily on your heartstrings. The frankness and repetitive nature of the photos somehow manage to stay engrossing, rather than wondering into the banal or self-obsessed. It is a fine-line to tread, but Emin just about succeeds.
Autobiography is always a type of posturing, yet with Emin’s work you have a sense that to lay yourself open like this is more akin to a purgative act. The video pieces, including an early film from 1996, How It Feels, which explores Emin’s psychological response to a harrowing abortion, are equally with charged with this sense of catharsis.
The show includes three large bronze sculptures with crouched spindly figures apparently poised in various manners of sleep. They rest on the gallery floor, and include one of her mother in her eighties. In their texture and heft, these sculptures work in successful counterpoint to the wall-hung pieces, and in doing so highlight the real achievement of the exhibition: a fully-fledged expression that dissects not just a anguished life but the nature of anguish itself.
Christopher P Jones is London Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Jones speculates on art, history, fiction and fact, and the meeting place of all four. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.