Research point: Sketchy/expressive ~ Tracey Emin
Make notes on an artist who works in a sketchy, expressive way.
Once again, for this research point, I visited the list of artists suggested to me by my tutor as being worth a closer look. Not surprisingly, the name Tracey Emin was a familiar one to me. However, I was better acquainted with her as a ‘personality’ than as an artist, so I was curious to explore further.
Born in 1963 (like Michael Landy, who featured in my previous post), Tracey Emin is an English sculptor, painter, draughtsman, video artist and installation artist. Before now, the only work of hers I had seen (albeit not in person) were some of the better-known installation pieces. Her drawings presented new territory. Even the most cursory glance at her creations offers some explanation, perhaps, of why the person has become as widely-known as her work. It is imbued throughout with personal stories, often relating to experiences that few people would care to offer up for public consumption -rape, abortion, destructive relationships, to name but a few. ‘Starkly confessional’ describes it succinctly. ‘Her large output has the character of an exorcism, given sense by her own assertion that art should be revelatory and life-changing in character’ (Stonard, 2013).
Her drawings are frequently childlike in style – truly sketchy and expressive – yet this apparent naivety is juxtaposed with explicit subject matter, often annotated with personal textual observations and statements. ‘A consummate storyteller, Emin engages the viewer with her candid exploration of universal emotions. Using experiences from her own life. she often reveals painful situations with brutal honesty and poetic humour’ (Keenan, 2010).
On the subject of her drawings, Emin has said ‘I like to record the moment, the event of the memory. I remember an event from my childhood. I pull it to the front of my mind. My emotions force the drawing out of my hand – this explains why so many of my drawings are repeated images. It’s not because I draw the same thing, but the same moment wants to be redrawn’ (Emin, 2009). Whilst researching Emin’s work, I was struck repeatedly by the intensely personal nature of what she does, and how that was at odds with my ideas on conceptual art. I had always viewed ‘conceptual’ as being steered by the external, as so much of it seems the antithesis of personal or internal. Emin’s work challenges that idea. ‘That’s the beautiful thing about drawing: it’s intimate, like handwriting, and the dialogue is between the paper and me’ (Emin, 2009).
In 2011, Tracey Emin was made Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy in London, a decision criticised by many. Eliza Bonham Carter, head of the Royal Academy Schools, countered that Emin’s style was ‘often wrongly associated with something that is untrained’, adding ‘there’s quite a beautiful use of mark, but there’s not a fully worked-up, hatched, shaded, traditional objective drawing’ (Bonham Carter, 2011).
One of the features of Emin’s drawing most commented upon is the evident speed at which it is done. ‘She draws at the speed of thought, which is a very rare ability’, said painter Anthony Green (Enoch, 2011). It appears instinctive rather than pre-meditated. In this way, her style supports the substance of her work. ‘Emin’s raw and brutal honesty exposes the mixture of pathos, vulnerability, resentment and frank aggression which makes humanity so complex’ (Manchester, 2000).
I’m glad to have had the chance to look more closely at Tracey Emin’s work. In the course of doing so, I’ve experienced a shift in my attitudes towards it. Where once I felt critical of what appeared to be simplistic ‘scribbles’, I have come to appreciate the willingness to lay bare parts of herself in such an unsparingly honest way. I find it moving, if not always aesthetically pleasing. I can understand why her work frequently attracts cynical responses, so often criticised as being something anyone could do. Perhaps what she does that so many others fail to do is speak openly about the darkest and most vulnerable parts of her life. The loose expressive quality of her drawing style is bound up with her desire to describe the moment of memory – to linger or deliberate would detract from that. Her work is challenging, and that is one of its great merits.
‘It took me years to understand the magic of drawing. For years, I tried to make things look how they are – instead of being what they are. Drawing is an alchemic language’ (Emin, 2009).
Bonham Carter, E. (2011) ‘Tracey Emin to become Professor of Drawing at RA’, BBC News [Online], Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16175033 (Accessed 4 June 2013).
Emin, T. (2009) ‘Ghosts of my past’, Guardian, 25 May, [Online] Available at www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/may/25/tracey-emin-drawing-art (Accessed 4 June 2013).
Enoch, N. (2011) ‘Uproar at Royal Academy as Tracey Emin is made professor of Drawing’, Mail Online, 14 December, [Online] Available at www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2073970/Tracey-Emin-Uproar-Royal-Academy-artist-Professor-Drawing.html (Accessed 4 June 2013).
Keenan, S.-A. (2010) Influences – The Drawings of Tracey Emin [Online], Available at http://shelley-annekeenanart.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/influences-drawings-of-tracy-emin.html (Accessed 4 June 2013).
Manchester, E. (2000) Terribly Wrong [Online], Available at www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/emin-terribly-wrong-p11565/text-summary (Accessed 4 June 2013).
Stonard, J.-P. (2013) Emin, Tracey [Online], Available at www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T096797?q=tracey+emin&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 4 June 2013).