White Cube Bermondsey, London
A haunted artist excavates her sorrows about love, bereavement and childlessness in a midlife riposte to British stoicism
Tue 5 Feb 2019 12.10 GMT Last modified on Wed 6 Feb 2019 11.59 GMT
4 / 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars.
Tracey Emin opens her exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey, London.
Tracey Emin opens her exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey, London. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
A Fortnight of Tears – a powerful show of new work by Tracey Emin at the White Cube Bermondsey in London – opens with a trio of saint-like figures, each portraying the nature of their martyrdom. Shown along one wall, they form a triptych of loss: figures enduring the agonies of heartbreak, bereavement and reproductive trauma.
To the left, I Watched You Disappear. Pink Ghost is veal pale, a sketchy suggestion of a figure, diluted, weakened and fading at the edges as if dissolved by tears.
In the centre, I Was Too Young to be Carrying Your Ashes is hot, weighty and furious, flooded with thick red and black paint pushed hard into the canvas.
The last, You Were Still There, is painted face-on, a woman etiolated and floating in the depths of the canvas like a Giacometti painting, her head crowned with the suggestion of a halo, her belly darkened by the roiling suggestion of a living thing within.
Emin is haunted, and painting doesn’t offer much by way of exorcism. The horrific botched abortion she had in 1990, the rapes that she endured as a teenager, the death of her father: all that is still there, brutal and gut-felt. Added to the mix is fresh grief – the recent death of her mother – and sickly, accreted layers of love squandered and trust betrayed.
Throughout these latest paintings, ghostly figures float half-realised in the depths, part obscured by thin wash, but refusing to disappear completely. In some works they are spectral. In Can You Hear Me, two indistinct forms hover at a table laid with a Ouija board. Elsewhere, the ghostly figures are characters slipping into the past.
In I Made You Happen, passionate red lines show the artist lying in bed beside a man, but they are rendered indistinct beneath a scrub of white paint. After partly erasing the red lines, Emin has reasserted her presence on the canvas as a black outline, its face dissolving in an inky pool that casts streaks down the canvas like tears through mascara.
The watery title is apt for a show that finds Emin exploiting paint’s liquid nature to painful, visceral ends. In And So It Felt Like This, the spare details of a female figure are deftly sketched with fine blue lines on to a whitish background pulsing with suggested, shadowy figures. In the gap between her legs is a triangle of paint the colour of dried blood, applied crudely with a wide brush, and so wet that it gushes down the canvas as though cascading from an open wound.
That fat, paint-laden brush is used more violently in other paintings, where – armed with indigo, black and shit brown – it masks horrors we’re not allowed to see. The artist’s blank, turned face appears in They Held Me Down While He Fucked Me but the assault of the title is painted over – perhaps in anguish, perhaps in defiance.
For, as Emin’s art reminds us, emotional responses are seldom neat and compartmentalised. The pain experienced on the death of a parent is not sealed off and separate from the pain of a disintegrating relationship, or the pain that wells when you remember the child you didn’t and can never have. These feelings flood chaotically and confusingly together.
A suite of sketches made in 2016, just after her mother’s death, addresses all this loss as a welter. In text, Emin’s tone is epistolary, addressing an unspecified other: “I could See you in my mind,” “Every Part of me kept Loving you,” “I carried you.” In these small works on paper, it is unclear who the absent “you” is: mother, lover or unborn child.
Emin arrived as a confessional artist, using raw material of the self: body and soul. Her work remains a riposte to the weird constipated stoicism of British respectability. At this stage in her career, painting at a scale that tests the bounds of her reach, the brutal honesty no longer feels confessional: it’s more about asserting distinctly female tragedy as a subject for great art.
Of course there is precedent. In doggedly revisiting the sites of early trauma she shares lineage with Louise Bourgeois. A pair of outsized bronzes – I Lay Here for You and When I Sleep – recall the women curled in agony in Paula Rego’s Abortion series. There’s also still a long way to go.
The Insomnia Room Installation portrays a different kind of haunting. Fifty cameraphone selfies, printed two metres high, show the artist’s face as she lies in bed crippled with fatigue but unable to sleep. We are put on intimate terms with her nightwear as well as various facial injuries, among them a fat lip, scabby wasp sting and post-operative stitches on her eyelids.
It’s a less momentous work, for sure, but just as thirtysomething Emin testified to the mess and catastrophe of emotionally available young womanhood, so fiftysomething Emin here testifies to the grim hauntedness of growing older: the sleeplessness, exhaustion, whirling anxieties, and the fear of running out of time.
The early video work How It Feels details the resolve that Emin’s botched abortion gave her to make work rooted in a deep place. Insomnia Room Installation feels like a first gesture in a new direction, exploring death, ageing and the changed relationship with the body. Let’s see where it takes her in the next 25 years.