The Limits of Confession: Tracey Emin at Lehmann Maupin
Tracey Emin: I Followed You To The Sun
Lehmann Maupin, May 2 to June 22, 2013
540 West 26th Street, New York City, 212-255-2923
201 Chrystie Street, New York City, 212-254-0054
Tracey Emin: Roman Standard
Installation in Petrosino Square, New York City
May 10 to September 8, 2013
I’ve often thought that what Anne Sexton is to poetry, Tracey Emin is to art: both lance their blisters publicly with the sincere belief that there is no other way. This is a compliment. It is easy to assume that the sort of reckless confession Sexton and Emin are prone to is somehow cheap. Perhaps this is because it makes the audience not simply readers or viewers but judge, jury, and executioner. At least Sexton had metaphor to distract from her abortions and affairs and suicide attempts. Emin’s admissions are literal, naked, and often involve images of the artist literally naked. But, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of care to look this careless.
In her fifth solo exhibition in New York, at Lehmann Maupin, spanning both the gallery’s Chelsea and Lower East Side spaces, Emin continues to work her calling-card themes. The show is entitled I Followed You To The Sun, after one of the artist’s neon installations, which proclaims as much in a yellow that stops just short of sunny. (Trust Emin to one-up those lovers who would not go farther than the moon.) Featuring over one hundred works, the exhibition reflects Emin’s signature medley of media; besides neon, there are drawings, embroideries, sculptures, and a film titled Love Never Wanted Me, which consists of images of a frolicking fox accompanied by Emin’s plaintive narration, a lament for a lover gone. The installation of the works in relation to each other becomes an important element in making sense of Emin’s narrative. For instance, her film is projected perpendicularly to the neon piece, a juxtaposition that emphasizes how much the artist will do for love and how little it has done for her.
The Chrystie Street gallery is devoted to a series of works on paper (gouaches and monoprints) based on photos Emin took of herself sitting naked on a chair, her legs spread, her face obscured. The blunt titles—“Lonely Chair drawing V,” “She kept crying,” “a Feeling of Past”—contribute to the voyeuristic, confessional mood. In the prints, handwritten text around the image makes the work even more intimate. Sample lines include, “That’s how you make me Feel” and “I fucked up I failed—it was my disaster—my choice—I just didn’t expect to feel so bad.” And here’s literal for you: the first attempt at “failed” is misspelled and crossed out.
If the images and allusions to personal melodrama sound familiar, that’s because they are. Emin has been working with these motifs since the beginning of her career. Her sexual brazenness, self-destructive need to be loved, and constant disappointment in matters of the heart are her great subject. From this place of high-pitch emotion she has produced work that is stunning in its simplicity and its conceit. This is an artist, after all, who made her bed into the artwork My Bed (1998) and received a Turner Prize nomination.
The key to Emin’s work is how surprising it can be even when it repeats itself. It asks of us nothing and everything. Because, the thing is, Emin will follow you to the sun, but you have to be willing to go to the sun first. In her guilelessness, she exposes our guile, our need to look and look and look. She keeps expanding her forms, changing her paces ever so slightly, which in turn keeps her theme of self-involvement compelling to both the new viewer and the veteran. For this exhibition she has created neat little bronze block sculptures painted all-over white with a small animal or bird perched atop. One ostensibly interesting thing about these works is that they were cast at the Long Island foundry where Louise Bourgeois used to make her own sculptures. Emin and Bourgeois famously collaborated on a series of drawings shortly before the older artist’s death in 2010, and the origin story for these statuaries solidifies the connection between the two women.
But to really understand the pull of Emin’s work, you have to visit Petrosino Square on the border of SoHo and Little Italy, where she has installed Roman Standard, a 13-foot pole with a single bronze bird balanced on top. (The artwork will remain in the park through September 8, 2013.) That bird, its wings at rest, its little head held proudly, speaks to the fundamental hope of Emin’s otherwise melancholic vision. What she has been confessing all along is an innocence, an optimism that cannot be undone no matter how many times she is hurt, by herself and by others: she would go to the sun, and it would burn, but it would also be beautiful.