The title of Tracey Emin’s latest exhibition – The Last Great Adventure is You – is misleading in two ways. Firstly, by “you” she means “me”; once again, Emin is her own muse. Secondly, it’s less of a “great adventure” and more of a casual skip around the parameters of the self. Manifest in the drawings, gouaches, paintings and bronzes is a youthful, almost naïve freedom that suggests an artist rediscovering, or trying to rediscover, who she is.
So, who is Emin these days? And how does she differ to the Emin of, say, 15 years ago? The long line of roughly drawn gouaches leading from the exhibition’s entrance are fast and frantic, like scrawled writing in the final seconds of an exam. Perhaps at 51, she’s starting to feel time is running out.
Or perhaps, and this seems more likely, it’s because for this exhibition she went back to school. Emin said middle age required her to relearn how to draw her body, and a studentish spirit is evident throughout the exhibition, a sense of someone inching towards authenticity through practice and repetition.
As you might expect from such a liberated methodology, results are mixed. Good Red Love spoils us with crimson passion while some of the larger drawings skilfully work a fluid expressiveness into ambiguous poses. Often, though, the drawings are too rough. The loose lines are supposed to lead us away from anatomic accuracy into the realm of feeling, but sometimes they take us beyond that toward a soupy abstraction that tells us nothing about Emin apart from her limits as a drawer. The lumpy bronzes aren’t much better. On sanded wooden table tops they lie as if on operating tables, waiting for an artist to come and give them life.
The emotional power of Emin’s most famous work, 1999’s My Bed, owed its appeal to a kind of nakedness. There she was, all of her, the stains and pongs of her personal torment exposed for the world to devour. It was art as therapy at its most raw: in presenting the bed in a gallery she was owning up to, and thereby exorcising, the chaos that tipped her towards suicide her in the late 90s.
The Last Great Adventure is You is devoted to actual nakedness. Her body is there in pencil, ink, gouache and bronze, but somehow it’s more elusive. Emin’s technical failings prevent her from convincingly transferring herself onto plinth or canvas. In too many of these self-portraits, Emin, that vivid, high-definition cultural figure, is disappointingly invisible.