Art Chronicles: Tracey Emin – Love Is What You Want

I’m sure it’s far from an original thought, but that Tracey Emin’s rise to fame (and fortune) should occur in an age besotted with the cult of celebrity and forever agog for (preferably sexual) gossip and scandal, should be no surprise. Having long adopted her prime art work as herself, her greatest achievement is surely to have raised herself up from the sad and often hostile tawdriness of her early life to the position she now holds – and I’m quoting the publicity from her Hayward Gallery retrospective here – as “one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary artists”.

It’s a beautifully, carefully curated show, the main room on the ground floor, with it’s Family and Friends section, in particular. Bits and pieces of writing, what are described as ‘relics’, snapshots of Gran & Dad. Lovely. Quite moving. The kind of early ephemera from a artist’s life that is always interesting- interesting for the light they throw on Tracey Emin, the person, the public person she’s chosen to become –  [Chosen, yes – compare her former friend and colleague, Sarah Lucas, sitting out the spotlight somewhere in the midst of Suffolk.] – if that’s what you want to engage with. But as for the work …

How many images of Tracey do you want to see? Tracey’s pregancy kit; Tracey’s old tampons. Tracey’s thoughts on being, then not being, pregnant, having or not having an abortion. Videos of Tracey riding a horse; runing round in a dress with pinned up with bank notes; Tracey demonstrating all too clearly “Why I Never Became a Dancer”; Tracey encountering a dog and [shades of James Ellroy] asking if it would like to have sex with her.

Though, judging from what’s on display here, the main person Tracey likes to have sex with is herself. The images abound, crowned [I think that’s the term] by a large size animation, created from 200 or so drawings, of a woman masturbating. “Even though it is an erotic subject,” she’s quoted as saying, “I felt distant from the sexuality of the pictures. It was almost like I was trying to understand something – what it means to be a woman, a single entity and feminine.”

And, in the broad public space of the gallery, the images are denied erotic impact – all the more so, for a male viewer amongst an audience [on this occasion] made up almost entirely of women.

It’s when she’s able to put some distance between herself as subject and herself as artist, however, that I think Emin produces her best work. The appliquéd blankets in the first room – practically the first things you see  – are simply stunning. Large pieces, recalling both the Trade Union banners of old and the notion of women’s craft, they merge word, colour and material into a series of fascinating artistic statements about everything from the most personal aspects of the maker’s life to what I see as [interestingly, in terms of her recent espousal of the Conservative party] her hatred of Mrs Thatcher and her fury over the Falklands War – but maybe I’m reading that one wrong.

On the upper floor, behind the screen showing the aforementioned animation, and dealing far more subtly with similar subject matter, are two linked series of paintings – one in gouache, watercolour and pencil on canvas, the other acrylic on canvas – in which the subtle use of pale colours – yellow and cream, pale orange and pale, pale green – which are quite beautiful, and connected in terms of their use of paint and visual imagery, to a pair of abstract canvasses – “Love, Love, Love” & “A Rose” – which show a marked influence of abstract expressionism and recall the work, in particular, of Philip Guston and Cy Twombly.

And then there is the stunning and unsually, for Emin, large-scale canvas, “Black Cat’ – based apparently on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and wearing the influence of Goya to great effect – a pink and white figure wearing a trailing black dress or cape,  her face obscured by a rectangle of solid black and with a pool of dark red blood at her feet. So striking, both in its execution and by its very presence that you wish there were more of this – even if she is the model’s whose identity is blacked out – and less that is blatantly herself.

Finally, I do recognise, I think, that much of my negative reaction to parts of the show is based on the fact that the very femininity of a great number of the works shut me out – this is, I think, in part at least, very much a exhibition by a woman for other women – and, as such, that’s my problem, not Emin’s. I also see that those works I’m responding to me most warmly are those which both fall into areas of art, of painting, to which I generally respond, and which call to mind other artists or works I like – Guston, Goya, TUC banners – rather than those which are more exclusively Emin. Again, my problem, not hers.

You should probably go, make up your mind for yourself.