Her and You
The Changing Language of Tracey Emin’s New Paintings
Tracey Emin’s new paintings, recently exhibited as part of the exhibition “A Fortnight of Tears” at White Cube, London, reveal an uncommon depth of feeling. Yes, her art in all its many media has always been emotionally demonstrative; you always knew what was on her mind—the passions of desire, abandonment, pleasure, revenge, or whatever was at stake in any given piece—and the work declared the feeling, expressing, more than its particular nuance, its intensity. But little by little, painting has come to allow Emin another possibility: to dwell on the inwardness of the feeling, its intangible subjective essence, the particular tenor of its vibration of the soul—which is communicable only in the way that a vibration is: that is, by causing a further vibration, in this case in the viewer. It’s a wordless communication through colour, line, facture and image, not the illustration of an idea.
One of the most poignant of Emin’s recent paintings is The Memory of Tears, 2018. As with many of them, it is extremely concise, with no wasted mark. On a white ground, a face limned in shades of pink confronts the viewer. Below the head, just a few stray marks, seemingly almost haphazard lines, appear to suggest that the body must be oriented toward the right—implying that this head has been turned toward us. This suggestion of movement helps strengthen the sense of life, of animation—a device familiar from many portraits from the Renaissance onward, for instance in many by Raphael, but here conveyed so subtly, even almost subliminally, that it feels like a fresh invention. Yet, while the eyes seem to seek a response, an emotional engagement, from the viewer, this is in the end foreclosed. The left eye, on the right side of the canvas, is a deep shadow, the darkest and most opaque passage of pink in the painting, while the right eye is almost completely obscured by a wash of grey that has been scumbled over that side of the face in a broad arcing gesture; some darker grey looms above in the painting’s upper left corner. A connection is almost established between the depicted face and the viewer, but finally the very materiality of the paint that tantalizingly seems to make this exchange of gazes possible also veils it. And yet I can’t help feeling that although in the end I can’t look into this person’s eyes, she can look into mine. She can know me more deeply than I can know her. This is what gives the painting its uncanny power.
Who is this painted person who knows so much— maybe too much? I have to guess that this is the artist’s self-portrait. But it’s not explicitly called that and it’s not a naturalistic rendering of the appearance of her face. It’s not like the photographic self-portraits Emin has also been making of late—selfies on a grand scale, but unlike most people’s selfies, showing her at her most unprepared and vulnerable, namely when experiencing insomnia. In fact, the painting is more intensely personal than most self-portraits, but in an almost abstract way: it is the inability to fix the gaze that represents the emotional gravity of this portrait. And then, assuming it is a self-portrait, the face we see must be a face in a mirror, while the viewer has been put in the place of the painter, studying her own reflection seeking an elusive resemblance to the self she imagines. But this reflection seems to have a glare on it—paradoxically, a shadowy glare, a sort of darkness visible, a murky dazzlement of a sort that could only be conjured by painting. Or is it that the mirrored self is seen through watery eyes, eyes welling with tears evoked by the remembered ones of the painting’s title? I think of the words from the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), his meditation on Andrew Marvell’s poem “Eyes and Tears” and on some drawings in the Louvre, many of them self-portraits: “the blindness that reveals the very truth of the eyes … would be the gaze veiled by tears. It neither sees nor does not see: it is indifferent to its blurred vision.”
The Memory of Tears is unusual among Emin’s recent paintings in even implying, however fleetingly, the possibility of an exchange of gazes between a depicted figure and the viewer. In many of the others, the abstracted faces are even more abstract—without an eye to catch, they are absorbed in their own worlds, their own memories, their own passions. But the questions evoked by The Memory of Tears, questions about who is looking at whom and who is being addressed in it, have been perennial in her art. The power of Emin’s recent paintings is enabled by her command of a medium that she had essentially held fallow between the time she earned her MA from the Royal College of Art in 1989 and around 2007 when she surprised almost everyone by exhibiting paintings at the Venice Biennale. But it also comes from the fact that her paintings do not represent a recantation of her work in other media. The paintings gather into themselves nearly everything she’s experienced in her life as an artist— in theme, in thought and even to a great extent in form—and make more of it than she’s ever been able to do before. In that sense, we should now revise our sense of much of her previous art to see it as already incipiently painting. A neon sign is line plus colour; a fabric assemblage is shape, colour, gesture and tactility—it’s easy to see how those could lead back to painting. But beyond the elements of a formal language, there is the more crucial fact of content. I wish someone had expressed as neatly for the art of painting the idea that Emerson set down for poetry: “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte, New York: The Library of America, 1983). Just so, it is not colours and lines that make a painting, but the impassioned thought that vivifies them and gives them, as he says, an architecture. For Emin, that architecture was forming all throughout the course of her work, but her art of painting has rendered it more habitable.
In giving feeling its habitation in the materiality of painting, Emin has modified the role of language in her work—the wordless communication that painting enables does not entirely banish language, which has always been among her primary materials. There’s the speech in her videos, the texts in her sewn appliqué fabric works, drawings and paintings; I sense a constant communicative impetus in all her work. She’s talking in it, and I never doubt who is talking—the force of the personality, or persona, is too vivid for that. Even when she has to admit, “See I can’t hear myself,” as she does at the beginning of the 1996 video How It Feels, I know I hear her. But when there’s a “you” in her work, I usually don’t know who that is. Some examples from her past works: fabric works such as Take what the fuck you like, 2001, Who the fuck are you, 2002, or Providence, 2004, with its legend, “why should i protect myself from you when you are the one who protects me”; neons including You forgot to kiss my soul, 2001, Meet me in heaven I will wait for you, 2004, and I Followed You into the Water Knowing I Would Never Return, 2011; and any number of drawings. The artist presumably has a particular “you” in mind each time, but to the gallery-going public, the identity of that person is unknown, indeterminate. Sometimes “you” must be herself: soliloquy.
But the material form of the artwork performs what the literary scholar Jonathan Culler once called a “deflection of the message,” a manipulation of “the circuit or situation of communication” (“Apostrophe,” The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, London: Routledge, 2001) that is peculiar to apostrophe, the figure of direct speech to an absent or inanimate or imaginary addressee, a problematic “you.” When art incorporates language—as became increasingly common over the course of the 20th century, from Dada to pop art and beyond—it begins to open itself to questions about who is being addressed, and therefore to effects of deflection similar to those that Culler traced in lyric poetry.
And its insistent use of the vocative suggests that Emin’s art is closely related to this poetic mode. Its autobiographical content, its personal urgency, its compulsion to express are always evident, but that should not disguise the fact that in some way, these are abstracted, generalized. It’s something the artist herself has been frank about. In a conversation with Carl Freedman, she explained the making of her 1998 sculpture My Bed as the product of a kind of intellectual removal, an abstraction in the literal, etymological sense (from the Latin verb abstrahere, “draw away”). After a drinking binge left her at the point of collapse, she said, when she finally got up, “I looked at the bed and thought, ‘Oh my God, I could have died in there,’ and that’s how I would have been found. And then from one second looking horrible it suddenly transformed itself into something removed from me, something outside of me, and something beautiful. I suddenly imagined it out of that context, frozen, outside my head, in another space” (Tracey Emin, Works 1963–2006, New York: Rizzoli, 2006). In calling this act of removal an intellectual act, I am obviously not speaking of it as intellectualized or strategic. On the contrary, as Emin describes it, it was clearly spontaneous, almost visceral, and even involuntary—words that still today one might apply to the fraught character of the mark-making in her paintings, despite the solid architecture that underlies them. A mental reframing transfigured a perception.