Drawing on the familiar

Tracey Emin, I didn’t say I couldn’t love you, 2011

I’ll start by owning up to the fact that I wouldn’t have gone to see She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, Tracey Emin’s exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, if there hadn’t been a couple of other things on show outside the gallery that I particularly wanted to see. Over the years, Emin has made quite a lot of work I really like but most of it has been video and, with a few exceptions, I’m not crazy about her drawings, prints and paintings. But I was there so it would have been foolhardy not to take a look. I’ve seen enough of Emin’s work to know that at its best it can be genuinely affecting and that sometimes even the small, almost throw-away, drawings can be funny and occasionally hit a nerve or tell some sort of universal truth.

Laying on Blue, 2011

Given that Turner Contemporary is fairly small – I’ve written about this elsewhere before, but the gallery spaces are beautiful, with a lot of natural light from high windows; there just aren’t many of them – there is quite a lot of work in the show and in the main it’s been made within the last couple of years. There are a few sculptures and a couple of neon works but other than that the work is firmly rooted in drawing though there are paintings and some of the drawings have been reworked as embroidery on fabric, a strategy that works unexpectedly well in places.

Neon nude, 2011

My general impression of the show is that it’s all a bit repetitive; though each room has a different feel, within each room there seems to be a lot of work without much by way of distinguishing features. But the Emin that has returned to her hometown is no longer ‘Mad Tracey from Margate’ and there are signs in the work of, if not exactly a new maturity, then at least a slightly changed set of concerns. Overwhelmingly though this is a show about love and the lack of it, loneliness, solitude and, of course, the body: her much drawn, seldom clothed body. In interviews Emin has talked about ageing, going through the menopause – which with characteristic overstatement she sees as the ‘beginning of dying’ – and about her decision not to have children – which she claims means she is ‘treated like a witch’ – but none of this is fully explored here, though this may be for the best, given that her pronouncements in interviews don’t seem that well thought through.

Breakfast at the Grotto, 2011

For me, in many ways this exhibition seems like a wasted opportunity. Though I am somewhat heartened that at least Emin seems to be moving beyond the demons she seems to have been trying to exorcise through her work for the last couple of decades, her work remains confessional and now that she no longer wants to tell all about her sex life she’s simply switched to talking about the lack of love in her life.

Dead Sea, 2012

In the final space, a bronze cast of a dead branch lies alone on a mattress that has clearly seen better days; the title – Dead Sea – is heavy with connotations of feeling dried out and washed up. There is of course the obvious reference to Emin’s earlier My Bed but looking at the work that’s not the first connection that comes to mind. I find myself thinking instead of Emin’s partner in The Shop, Sarah Lucas, who used mattresses to better effect in my view. While Tracey Emin was always the (self-styled) made one, it was Sarah Lucas’s work that always made me smile.

Tracey Emin: She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea is at Turner Contemporary in Margate until 23 September.

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