Review of Tracey Emin: The Last Great Adventure is You

This exhibition is – as it always has been –all about Tracey. But it is about a mature Emin who has absorbed the ravages of time and embodied them in a new materiality. Somewhere beneath the layers of gouache and the surfaces of the bronze, Mad Tracey from Margate is lurking, but the seriousness and resolve of this new body of work keep her at bay. This is a sober, provocative show, where traditional notions of beauty collide with the ugly truth of human striving.

The title of the show, The Last Great Adventure is You, sounds tender and romantic, but it contains an exemplary Eminism. It is a conceit of the grammar of the Self, whereby Emin is speaking in her voice, almost to herself, so that when she says “You” she really means “Me”. The last great adventure, however, is not loneliness but resignation to the fact that the Self is the one constant in a cruel world.

The same ideas are updated in new working methods and processes that convey Emin’s current mindset. The devotion to craft and the intimate expression are still there, but the resultant works are cleaner, somehow effortless, with all the toil locked in their conceptual grounding rather than in their physicality. The important thing, as with all Emin’s work, is the way the depth and sincerity is realised in the materiality of the work. The huge embroideries dimly recall those sketchy patchwork quilts, but give a bold painterly quality to images from the gouache drawings. The gouaches themselves are nimble, visceral expressions of the passion in Emin’s famous monoprints. Even the ubiquitous neons, forged from antique glass in Emin’s own handwriting, remain irresistible with their desperate messages of self-assurance.

Whereas Emin once traded on the immediacy of the readymade or a handwritten letter, she now submits to the slow-burning fruits of the studio or the foundry, connecting her very contemporary practice to a tradition that extends back to van Gogh and Rodin. The tiny paintings, gouache on canvas in luscious colours, are the logical extension of Emin’s drawing practice: they take up to 10 years to make, one fevered mark at a time with many layers of rejection beneath, but every line contains a wealth of emotion. The bronze sculptures of lions, lambs, birds and gnarled human figures are surprisingly dainty, but their cold, hard surfaces exemplify the resilience that Emin now feels as she reconsiders a lifetime of loss, error and frailty. The stark realisation is that you can grasp your dreams and change so much, but the ineffable narrative of your past stays with you forever.

This show is the product of a carefully honed craft that has the expression of human sentiment at its core by an artist who suddenly understands herself as middle-aged and content. And whilst it really is all about Tracey, none of the figures here have faces, as if Emin has once again looked at herself, but she has been unable to distinguish herself from the mass of humanity.

Tracey Emin: The Last Great Adventure is You, White Cube Bermondsey, 8 October – 16 November 2014

Daniel Barnes

1. The Last Great Adventure is you, 2014, Neon, 177 3/16 x 67 11/16 in. (450 x 172 cm), Photo: Patrick Dandy.