For the first solo show at Margate’s stunning Turner Contemporary, who else but Emin? But if the return of the town’s most famous daughter is predictable, the show is anything but. Her sculpture The Vanishing Lake – which features a stained Union jack in a battered, rusted metal bath is meant to symbolise “fecundity leaving – the girl is never coming back” but it could equally act as the epitaph of the synonymous-with-shock Tracey Emin era.
At Friday’s launch, the artist pointed out the alleged radicalism of the My Bed is now commonplace in contemporary culture – so much so that she sees its echo in any number of saucy bedroom scenes in adverts. But it is wrong to think her new artistic departure is born out of necessity because she has lost her power to rile middle England. It’s more that she’s mellowed.
“I am constantly falling in and out of love with art, sometimes it’s really good to me, sometimes it’ not so nice and sometimes I have treated it very disrespectfully. When I am low it is art that comes and saves me. This show has made me fall back in love with art and the whole process.
“This show is more important to me than going to Venice (for the Biennale in 2007). There’s more risk-taking. I see a future for me and my art, I am excited about where this show will lead me.”
The first gallery of the exhibition is busy with bright blue goauche paintings – confident, fast, loose and bright in the dazzling white space. Human forms rendered as energies, with occasional snippets of text, a dialogue about relationships in turns sweet and vaguely unsettling. At its most extreme it’s recognisable Emin territory, art as therapy, but it’s not as earnest as that might sound.
There’s also some beautiful embroideries on display, where the same eclectic lines (spidery, tapered, fat) are brought together in thread. Why would you recreate this frenetic style of drawing in such a painstaking medium? It feels like we’re being toyed with but it’s enjoyable, and it continues in the next room where a selection of soft nude paintings have been transformed into tapestries. The effect is disorienting, splayed female forms woven in this way.
There’s more embroideries here too, a triptych of herself reimagined as Picasso’s muse Marie-Therese Walter along with an accompanying series of monoprints, a celebration she says of an art history reference she loves (something again she feels she can do now she has reached a certain stage in her career).
For some, the inclusion of Rodin’s exquisite nudes and some of Turner’s (those not destroyed by Ruskin in his ham-fisted attempts to protect his fellow painter’s posthumous propriety) might seem incongruous but there’s no great sweeping point trying to be made. All three artists fixate on eroticism at certain moments, and a multi-century look at sexuality is an interesting diversion.
But back to Tracey. For someone who speaks about sex with charm and humour, the pervasive sexuality is anything but. It’s bruised, messy, complicated, a world away from the saucy seaside postcards with which Margate is so associated. A collection of 16 small paintings called Sex 25-11-07 Sydney seem to be a series of retina-flash imprints from a single intense night, a greatest-hit of animalistic passion perhaps.
Certainly the Dead Sea sculpture, a bronze cast branch in the middle of her stained old mattress is a hymn to sexuality past (“I’m never going to have a mattress stained like that again no matter how much I’d like to”).
It’s in the sculptures where her conceptual side runs wild, in the paintings ideas very much take a back seat to process and this is refreshing in itself. It was a deliberate choice not to bring together her various Margate works back to where they all began, she wanted to create something new and vibrant and I think surprising. Some critics have painted this show as the repackaging of her as a national treasure, but if you look for it there’s more going on here than immediately meets the eye.