I don’t normally comment on what the critics have to say because I tend to find most of them pretty un-insightful or just plain boring. However I couldn’t help but respond to the Jonathan Jones Guardian review of the latest Tracy Emin show. See it here
I do try to be generous when it comes to the work of other artists because I know how hard it is to establish any sort of practice. I am aware of long hard hours spent in the studio, alongside the periods of self-doubt and inner turmoil that are the norm for most sensitive people. (And artists do tend to be sensitive souls). However the claims Jones makes for Emin’s drawings are extreme, in his review he states that Emin offers us “a masterclass in how to use traditional artistic skills in the 21st century”. He suggests that she has wrestled the life drawing mantle out of the grasp of all those past ‘male’ artists, at last a woman making images of a woman (herself) that will stand up to the test of time. He goes on to suggest that all art students should visit this show and learn from a ‘real’ artist. Jones is also claiming that “She (Emin) is now clearly the most important British artist of her generation.”
Jones has done a good marketing job, after reading his review I must go and see these images, but even though I havn’t seen this show, I not too long ago saw a large exhibition of Emin’s life drawings, prints and paintings and was very disappointed. Either she has improved tremendously over the last couple of years or Jones is seeing things that I am oblivious to.
My last post was looking at how Michelangelo struggled to find a language to express that awesome moment of realization that there is a cusp point between life and energy and its loss in death, a point that can become a point of leverage back into the world of the spirit.
Jones looking at Emin’s work finds similar levels of engagement with the human condition, he says;
“These nudes are eerie, poetic and beautiful. Faces are left blank or blotched out. Flowing and pooling lines of gouache define form with real authority. The human figure is just as expressive as the human face. Michelangelo knew that and so does Emin. The rough, unfinished suggestiveness of her style evokes pain, suffering, and solitude – but the classical poses of these bodies also communicate a heroic strength. When she translates her designs into black embroideries on white calico, the magnified scale is even more heroic. The body electric rules in majesty”.
Oh dear, I have to unpick what he is saying and in some ways I wish I didn’t have to because I want more women to take over that mantle of using the human body as a vehicle for expressing the profundity of existence. I want examples to be out there for you as students to look at and learn from, but I don’t think Jones is right. For instance I think Marlène Dumas is a much more powerful image maker and one that makes us far more aware of the human body and how we think of it within the confines of late Capitalism and a media soaked society.
I feel the need to unpick Jones’ words in detail. Jones says that these nudes are “eerie, poetic and beautiful”, well why? Eerie? What makes them so? Perhaps they are to Jones, in particular if he is not used to looking at drawing. Lots of students come to expressive mark making via mono-print. I’m sure Emin did because it was taught to all students of her generation as a freeing up exercise, I taught it myself to a whole raft of students who are Emin’s generation. The type of mark partly relies on the fact that you cant see what you are going to get until you peel the paper off the ink slab. The drawing is also backwards so again as an artist you are surprised by what you get. This coupled with another standard loosener in life classes, drawing without looking at the paper, helps to free the mind from cliché’s and helps to surprise the maker with the unexpected compositions that result. These are all good things, but not revolutionary and not masterful. In fact you could argue that Emin’s style of drawing is very clichéd , as she is still relying on the techniques taught her at art school and hasn’t yet transcended them. However drawings done using these techniques do sometimes feel ‘awkward’ or ‘difficult’ because of the distortions to form made and this can seem eerie to some people especially if they are not used to looking at drawings. ‘Poetic’ normally means that the language used in depicting the world is reframed in such a way that what has been observed, is seen again refreshed. A poet uses the same words as the rest of us, sees the same things but puts those words together in a way that re-vitalises the connection we have with both words and the world. I don’t think Emin refreshes the language, in fact I think she uses poses that are clichés, as well as her style of drawing being clichéd. The word beauty is a difficult one and has many definitions, perhaps the one that Jones was looking for was ‘truth’ and to some extent I do think these drawings express a truth, but perhaps not the one Jones is thinking of. I think the deeper truth is that Emin is making art that looks like art, an art that uses the signs of expression; speed of gesture, rough mark, figure distortion etc. to signify expression whilst actually expressing very little. I think her ‘Bed’ is far more expressive, her banners and tent all seem far more honest expressions of her as a human being and I think those pieces of work are excellent, but by taking her work into the direction it is now going it is having to compete with too many ghosts of ‘phallocentric’ expression and rather than re-claim territory for women, I think she begins to copy the modes by which she privately thinks ‘real’ artists are judged. Jones is obviously another who believes in the old standards of drawing as the sign of a ‘real’ artist. However, as someone who does draw and who has taught drawing for over 40 years, I’m aware that drawing is a very broad church and that it is a subtle and wonderful tool, that has to be precisely honed to work, and I’m not convinced that Jones’ eyes are sharp enough to see what is really going on and I feel he mistakes style for expression.
Emin does avoid drawing faces but why? Perhaps it’s because she lacks the visual invention to come up with a way of drawing them that isn’t clichéd, I don’t want to suggest she doesn’t draw faces because she finds them too difficult, but Jones’ ready assertion that the human figure is just as expressive as the human face, is again something that Emin will have been told during her Foundation year, a truth, but a very well known one. The position of the head is vital to the expressiveness of the body, but Emin’s heads are empty vessels, thin formless bags of vacant space that have never encountered ‘life’ in their life, heads don’t need features to be expressive, true, but they do need a formal purpose.
I am perhaps been overly negative here, her images aren’t that bad, it’s just that they aren’t that good either. If we look at the poses used it is easy to spot their historical references Titian, Goya and Manet have all examined variations of this reclining pose; all men making images of sexually aware women.
A Titian Venus. This is an early Renaissance example of the reclining nude pose.
Goya revisits the pose yet again in the 18th century in both clothed and unclothed formats.
Manet painting on the cusp of Modernism, a 19th century re-invention of the pose.
Emin’s variation above doesn’t seem to add anything new, simply laying the ‘heroic’ brushwork of Abstract Expressionism into a well established reclining nude format. Of these painters perhaps the most interesting in terms of how women are portrayed is Manet. His woman stares at us directly, she confronts the male gaze, looking back at the viewer with a self confidence that suggests something other than a final submission to the gaze.
Tracy Emin: Up Straight
Emin’s ‘Up Straight’ is another cliché of a pose. Compare the pose she uses with the one used by Augustus John (a cliche ridden artist if there ever was one) and then look at and compare with the language of simplification used by Matisse. Matisse is dynamic and revolutionary in his visual invention. Emin just leaves the features of the face out. Matisse invents form as he pushes his lines through a complex ‘carved’ space, Emin is still working her lines around the edges of forms.
Matisse. You can see him stripping the images down, paring away until he gets to something unique and yet still formally coherent.
Where is the invention in Emin's work, where is the insight that makes for great drawing? I can’t see it. I could go on but I have some drawing to do of my own and don't want to waste my energy.
But what do you think? Jones must have a strong basis for his view or he wouldn’t publish it in a national newspaper.