The much-hyped solo debut by Brit-pack bad-girl Tracey Emin is one of the year's best surprises. Emin is a troubled, 36-year old woman, for sure. And she has experienced more than her share of misery, lots of which she attempts to convey through her art. A half-English, half-Turkish twin, she grew up in the British red-neck seaside town of Margate. Raped at the age of 13, Emin reports that she became the town tart, losing herself in the shadowy basement of society. As an adult, she apparently still has endless trouble with men, as well as with finding herself as an artist and as a person -- which for her are one and the same thing.
As depressing as this may sound, Emin's exhibition, titled "Every Part of Me's Bleeding," is actually quite lively and upbeat. Unlike most other "bad-girl" conceptualists on both sides of the Atlantic, she doesn't go for cheap gross-out effects. Instead, she somehow transforms her rage into something rather poetic.
American artists ranging from Hannah Wilke to Kathy Acker have covered the same ground. But Emin's work has a considerable amount of formal invention, as evidenced by this elegant installation. She has transported certain large chunks of her lived environment to New York. In the gallery's back room is part of her messy bedroom, complete with stained sheets, filled ash trays and a half-used tube of KY Jelly lying on a filthy carpet. The literalness of the work is astonishing if not moving, and while it recalls certain forms of pathetic art, the attention to detail and comprehensiveness of the piece transcend the jokey stance of the abject. Instead, the work exudes a matter-of-fact "so there-ness" like an archeological relic from some lost civilization.
Also on view are drawings, photos and texts by Emin that demonstrate varying levels of craftsmanship but consistent ardor. A large quilt features the words "Psyco Slut" while a smaller work on paper reads "I told you Everything Can Be Beautiful." In blue neon one work spells out the show's title in cursive on a wall, and a pink neon piece in the front room gives the dimensions of her lover's penis. In videos and constantly running films, the artist opens her heart to all, telling, perhaps, more than anyone wants to know about Tracey Emin.
One of the more attention-grabbing pieces is a small beach house displayed in the main gallery. This shack, which Emin bought and shipped from Margate, harbors her memories if not her psychic energy. Emin lived there with a difficult lover, and also with her friend, the artist Sarah Lucas, another Brit-pack celebrity.
Unlike Lucas' work, which is darkened by a juvenile nihilism and obnoxious posturing, Emin's art is sarcastic but never cynical. The beach shack, for instance, is presented not as a funky piece of trash to amuse jaded New Yorkers, but as a spirit house in which the artist's muse may always reside. For Emin, everything can be beautiful.
Tracy Emin, "Every Part of Me's Bleeding," May 1-June 19, 1999, at Lehmann Maupin, 39 Greene, New York, N.Y. 10013.