Tracey Emin’s work presents an unfiltered and often embarrassingly personal view of emotional pain. It reflects the kind of desperate or careless narcissism that is the territory of the depressed. Emin is concerned with the primacy of her own experience—and the narrative of her own sadness is the unabashed subject of her work. Emin’s oeuvre has always felt most valuable to me in terms of a documentation of personal response: those small moments in her work in which we can be self-indulgent with her; when her moments develop a mutual understanding of depressed interior life.
Emin’s current solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, I Followed You To The Sun, features work in mediums that we’ve come to associate with her: small, square, painted canvases of figures in coitus; an extensive collection of figure drawings in gouache on paper; a gratuitous neon installation of the exhibition’s title in her handwriting. The collection is punctuated by a series of new bronze sculptures developed during her residency at Louise Bourgeois’ Long Island foundry.
Emin’s Lonely Chair drawings series is a repetitive study of her own figure in the same hunched position, taken from a photograph of herself in France. Emins also draws similar self-portraits of slouched figures in chairs in monoprint on personalized stationary from her own Paris address. These stationary portraits are an acknowledgement of the weight of her presence as a “famous artist” and foreground her own primacy as a subject. The stationary is another way of signing her work, affording the prints a ring of authenticity, but it also makes her drawings seem quotidian, commonplace—just scrap materials from her studio practice.
So much of Emin’s work in this show is about this kind of harried repetition. Emin draws the same pose over and over again with a kind of aggressive, slight variation. Each scrawled drawing bears a revealing title that, in true Emin style, reads like a Linkin Park song title: “Just a Brocken Moment” [sic], “More Tears & Tears,” “Away From Myself.” Each drawing contains small moments of depressive aggression where her face or figure have been scribbled over or lost. Looking at the work hurts, because I understand the weight of desperate and pathetic gestures—as if there’s nothing else to do but to draw this same thing even though I’m so sick of myself.
Displayed along a long wooden table in Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea location are slabs of whitened bronze featuring prostrated versions of the artist clinging to a series of animals. The slabs are inscribed with a variety of text slogans, Emin’s calling card. The slogans are customarily over the top, but I can feel that they are totally sincere for Emin. Emin presents an ugly sadness, one that is gratuitous and embarrassing, and we roll our eyes at it only because we have the luxury of critical distance.
It strikes me that the artist seems able to find worth and inspiration in the same emotional residue that she’s been dealing in for so much of her career. Emin has basically been on the same tip since she was in her twenties. It’s as if her perspective has not changed a bit in thirty years. Though it is satisfying to recognize parts of my own depressed attitudes in her work, Emin also terrifies me, because her sincerity reveals that it doesn’t suddenly get better when you’re middle-aged and famous.
It’s as if Emin refuses to gain any perspective on her own sadness. She can’t get over “it.” But what is “it”? There are some hints that this is a question Emin asks herself. On one bronze slab, Emin’s slumped body rides a stag above the etched, handwritten text: “I WHISPER TO MY PAST DO I HAVE ANOTHER CHOICE.” Emin’s short video, Love Never Wanted Me, features lo-fi tracing footage of a small fox on an abandoned English estate. Emin’s voice-over concludes the accompanying narrative, “I have turned myself upside down looking for love… the broken heart is a lonely world. This is the love that I know.” Emin presents us with a depiction of the heart in agonized pain without instruction for how to cope. This constant state of emotional duress is the quiet, dedicated studio practice that Emin presents for us—an everyday, inescapable sadness whose narrative never concludes.
Tracey Emin’s I Followed You To The Sun, on view through June 22 at Lehmann Maupin (both locations): 540 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001; 201 Chrystie Street, New York, NY 10002.