‘Kitschy, exhibitionistic, shameless, and at the same time vulnerable and ready to show it’. The words are Agata Pyzik’s, whose 2015 essay for n+1, ‘In Praise of Vulgar Feminism’, negatively contrasts the precision and reserve of Kim Gordon’s public persona with the brashness of Courtney Love. If Tracey Emin is a Love, not a Gordon, the comparison is not intended to damn the British artist. On the contrary: on the evidence of ‘The Memory of Your Touch’, an exhibition of 90-odd works spread across Xavier Hufkens’s two venues, I would say that Emin is a good artist, even a great one. At the very least, the works frequently show a deftness of touch, an instinctive grasp of line and a gentle probing of form that’s as impressive as it is, perhaps, unexpected. Look without prejudice at the acrylic Mother (2017), in which a body both uncertain and powerful – the matter of a few, half-submerged brushstrokes – nestles on a wet slap of crimson, or the striding figure in You Protected Me (2016), its upper body rendered with economy, its head a blob of red, set against a spectral landscape. These works are forceful, brazen and unabashed about their references and aims, but they absorbed me as much as any new figurative art I’ve seen this year.
The low-point of this show is the video You Made Me Feel Like This (2017), which dully records the artist writing and reading a letter, alongside some shots of graveyards and cranes. While seemingly in a similar vein, a 2016 photograph with the same title as the exhibition does much more. The image depicts the artist lying prostrate on a bed, face turned away, sex exposed, legs webbed in fishnet, and is displayed vertically, as if Emin is not flat but precariously dangling – or standing in fragile triumph. Is the subject here – Emin - remembering someone’s touch, or is someone else mourning her body and its feel? The question of literal orientation (up/down) and emotional orientation (my memory/your memory) is subtly and effectively troubled. As with Love’s work, wild demonstrativeness doesn’t preclude meaningful insight.
There’s a lot more lying about in this show: in Mother and A Feeling of Time (2016), subjects are legibly resting, while a more elusive sense of the horizontal, collapsed, recumbent form haunts many Cy Twombly-ish abstract paintings. To be horizontal, Rosalind Krauss writes in a 1993 essay on Cindy Sherman, is to reject the vertical field of ocular vision and the beautiful in favour of ‘the organ world’ – ‘the world of sniffing and pawing’. What better description of the feeling conjured by Emin’s plinth-sized ceramic I Held Your Heart (2017). It’s hard to conjure sex: not desire or sex-appeal, but the lived, sensory-psychic mess of being entangled with another person, inside and outside of them, hyper-aware of your body and yet only still partly yourself. But the mangled, soft, fist-like, angry, self-enclosing form of this ceramic does it, or does it for me.
When I told a gallerist whom I hugely respect that I might review Emin’s exhibition, they simply asked ‘Why?’ My answer is that it shows an artist steadfastly dedicated to their purpose, maintaining an individual language while working hard to develop new expressions of it. If what the work conveys – that love is trauma, that death is inescapable, that sex is messy, that people hurt you and are sometimes also kind – remains the same as it long has, the artist’s forms, and the experience of looking at them, are different, stimulating and pleasurable. Pyzik claims that the different perceptions of Gordon and Love ‘were, and remain, profoundly a matter of taste’. Regardless of whether Emin’s art is or is not (nor ever will be) to your taste, it would be hard to ask any contemporary artist to do anything different – anything more.
Tracey Emin, ‘The Memory of Your Touch’, 2017, installation view, Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. Courtesy: the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels ; photograph: Allard Bovenberg