New York

Tracey Emin, Missbelief, 2013, gouache on paper, 12 1/2 x 16".

Tracey Emin, Missbelief, 2013, gouache on paper, 12 1/2 x 16".

Tracey Emin

Lehmann Maupin | New York, W 22 Street

Tracey Emin, Missbelief, 2013, gouache on paper, 12 1/2 x 16".

Anyone interested in a quick synopsis of the strangely conflicted position occupied by Tracey Emin these days need look no further than the artist’s biography on the website of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Now nearly a quarter century down the line from her late-Thatcherite efflorescence, theYBA turned CBE was named a Royal Academician in 2007 and is today a professor at that august institution. Yet unlike those of her colleagues, her bio—which she presumably provided, or at least approved—opens not with a nod to her artistic achievements but with this revelatory, classically Eminesque bit of self-presentation: “Originally gaining fame from a public outburst during a Channel 4 TV discussion . . .”

The incident occurred ten years before her RA induction, when a dangerously pissed Emin made a shambles of a Turner Prize roundtable involving a roomful of British art-world panjandrums. (She was nominated for the prize herself in 1999, with My Bed—a tableau of psychosexual disenchantment whose casual candor was red meat for the British tabloids.) The contretemps over the episode might have marked the artist as little more than a professional provocateur were it not for the other more interesting, more disciplined public “outbursts” she had been making all along: her often-misunderstood Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, 1995, for example, which, for all its narcissistic veneer, is also a remarkably tender work; or her drawings from the mid-1990s forward, sketchily expressionist selfies that coalesced over time into a full-fledged pictorial bildungsroman about an artist forever in some mode of emotionally fraught formation.

Emin made multiple appearances in New York this summer—she presented a show of ninety-six works spanning both of Lehmann Maupin’s spaces, and mounted a public project in SoHo organized in collaboration with the gallery, White Cube in London, and the Art Production Fund—and the visit found the prolific artist in autumnal humor, her familiar expressions of mordant self-ablation shot through with not just the usual dose of regret, but also a creeping, vaguely valedictory wistfulness that leavened their rebarbative affect. Emin’s drawings were the focus on the Lower East Side, where the show included a wide selection of monoprint and gouache-on-paper self-portraits, featuring frontal depictions of the artist seated, legs splayed or shut knock-kneed, hands draped at her sides or clutching her head in some spasm of sorrow. Scrawly and bodily, they also have something of the lightness of calligraphy about them—even Emin’s figurative work is always bound up with writing, and her drawings often feature additional diaristic annotations that serve as titles and/or captions, the elision of text and image at times suggestive of a kind of Michauxean spirit script.

In contrast to the tight focus at Chrystie Street, the show at the gallery’s Chelsea branch presented a fuller range of Emin’s practice, featuring small acrylics, neon, film, and sculpture. The last was represented by seven tabletop bronzes from 2013 cast at the Astoria foundry used by Louise Bourgeois, with whom Emin collaborated in the years leading up to the iconoclastic master’s death in 2010 at the age of ninety-eight. The autobiographical candor of these pieces would no doubt have pleased Bourgeois, as would the works’ intriguing obliqueness: Each is a smallish rectangular block painted pure white and bearing a written legend and a tiny animal totem, such as the stag atop I whisper to my past do I have another choice or the swan sailing unperturbed across the surface of Humiliated.

The objects have a reliquary character, something almost canopic—each waiting to receive another little piece of her heart?—and the fauna decorating them are part of a theme that ran throughout the show, one picked up again in the brief projection Love Never Wanted Me, 2013, in which Emin’s camera follows a small fox as it ambles guardedly through a countryside house and garden. The simple and effective film proposes both in its images and its rueful voice-over the animal depths of Emin’s longing, a trope that also seems to play itself out in Roman Standard, 2013, her almost imperceptible public piece at Spring and Lafayette Street, where, atop a thirteen-foot pole, a tiny bird faces east, toward home and the foreign country of the past.

Jeffrey Kastner