Tracey Emin
White Cube, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

She’s come a long way, our Tracey, from the days of teenage sex behind the beach-huts in Margate, the seedy Kent sea-side town where she grew up, famed for its 1960s beach battles between rogue gangs of Mods and Rockers and as JMW Turner’s hidey-hole, where he snuggled up to his landlady, Mrs Booth, in her seafront guest house.I first met Tracey in the 90s when I was at Time Out and interviewed her at the ‘shop’ she had started in Waterloo with Sarah Lucas. She was friendly and slightly out-to-lunch as she tripped around in, what I assumed, to be a state of post-prandial zaniness.  Self-obsessed and rawly talented, she came across as both worldly and vulnerable. Since then she has repeatedly been in the limelight – for her tent enumerating all those she slept with, that drunken display on TV and, of course, her notorious bed that didn’t actually win The Turner prize but earlier this year sold for £2.2 million. But nowadays she’s not so much wild child as grande dame. There’s the very healthy bank balance, the M&S adverts with Helen Mirren modelling clothes for middle-England. The support for the Conservative party and the dresses by Vivienne Westwood. She is professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. You can’t get much more establishment than that.Now she’s in the news again, not only for her exhibition: The Last Great Adventure is You, at White Cube, Bermondsey but because she recently announced that, for her, motherhood was incompatible with being an artist. “Having a child would be a substitute for my work”, she said. “There are good artists that have children…They are called men.” 

Of course, this is nonsense. We don’t live in the Middle Ages when that was certainly true. Barbara Hepworth had triplets, Nancy Spiro had children, as do many of Tracey’s contemporaries such as Eileen Cooper (Keeper of the RA Schools) and Jenny Saville. Rachel Howard has four and a very successful career.  But such black and white statements attract attention. No one denies that having a child is an individual woman’s choice. But in this age of celebrity gossip what people love is to identify with Tracey’s Hello! life-style; her abortions, her hopeless love-life and, now, her concern with the onset of the menopause and middle-age. It’s not so much that her art has made her famous but like a one-woman confessional, her feminism-lite perfectly captures the narcissism and self-indulgence of our contemporary society. We love that she’s a bit like us – only richer and better dressed, that like many we know she’s not had the luck to find the right man and that now, after the abortions, it’s too late to reproduce. But we seem to have forgotten that in the 70s and 80s many women artists made genuinely ground breaking work about the body and womanhood: Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly and Ana Mendieta to name but three. All had much more radical social and political agendas that formed part of a universal dialogue and a collective struggle. Kate Walker even stitched her experiences into everyday domestic objects and made a work called ‘The Other Side of the Blanket.’ Who remembers that now? Little acknowledgement is given to the legacy of these pioneering women.

Despite looking elegant in the beautiful White Cube gallery with its acres of polished concrete floors, The Last Great Adventure is You only goes to underline Tracey’s solipsism. The large scale embroidered figures (done by assistants), the bronze sculptures, the gouaches, paintings and neon works are, despite the ‘you’ in the show’s title, as usual, all about her. The nudes are the result of life-drawing classes she’s been attending in New York, while the sculptures have evolved from recent lessons in how to cast bronze. Yet despite the years of public angst and the recent admission that she expects to remain single from now on, they feel curiously unemotional. Much of the work lacks her direct touch. The large-scale embroideries have been sewn by other hands so that they feel like expensive interior decorations rather than the heart-wrung expressions of a woman grappling with the meaning of life. Even the small paintings, which do have a certain charm individually, when seen in a group, become weak and formulaic, full of the same gestural marks and clichés. There appears to be little real emotional or artistic struggle here. You feel you could order one up to suit your colour scheme. What’s supposed to feel intuitive and expressionistic has become designed and calculated. It’s all rather polite and tame. All rather Sunday morning life-drawing class.

Tracey has made her name as a confessional artist. But the problem is that there’s actually not enough Sturm und Drang, not enough soul searching. Unlike Louise Bourgeois there’s no real psychological insight or like Chaïm Soutine or Munch not enough nail-biting angst. She asks us to ‘feel her pain’ but we are not able to do so either emotionally or in the raw execution of her materials that, in the end, give an art work its voice. If her work was taken out of the magnificent space of White Cube and shown without all the razzmatazz in some shabby student studio, would we still be interested? There’s something moribund about it, as if she’s still paddling in the same pond as 25 years ago and moving no closer to the shore.

Perhaps if Tracey had had more of ‘real’ life looking after children: mopping up sick at midnight and balancing the parent’s evening with the studio opening, whilst also remembering to buy nappies and fish fingers on the way home, rather than flouncing around in a new Vivienne Westwood outfit at the opening of yet another envelope, her very real talent wouldn’t have become subsumed by her life-style and she might have developed as a serious artist rather than the media personality she has become. She is certainly right about one thing – you can’t have it all.

White Cube Bermondsey till 16th November 2014

Published in 3 Quarks Daily


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