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Tuesday 1 March 2011

Louise Bourgeois & Tracey Emin @ Hauser & Wirth, London

Review by Laura E. Barone, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin’s joint project, Do Not Abandon Me is a plea directed to the female body. All sixteen of the works in the show are of headless torsos, male and female, that put particular emphasis on sexuality: erect penises, swollen bellies, full breasts and rounded buttocks dominate. But these are not objectified bodies; they are lived in bodies, painted with regard for form but in an un-idealized palette of reds, pinks, black and blue gouaches on white cloth. The paintings have a rough and quick style to them, the colours deep and bold, almost Fauvist, and referencing the act of sex, or at least the memory of it. Bourgeois, in her nineties at the time, gave these images to Emin, who, greatly compelled by them, adoringly carried them around with her until she decided what to do with them. The result is the addition of roughly drawn, wiry, miniature female figures that interact with Bourgeois’ paintings in surprising ways. Emin also includes text within the works which force darker narratives of loss and emptiness onto Bourgeois’ original forms.

There seems to be three ways in which Emin’s figures engage with Bourgeois’ bodies: they are either women pleasuring themselves, women interacting with the male body, or women to whom Emin has added a foetus or reference to it. The sparsely drawn, nude women can be seen masturbating or lounging inside torsos or, in A million ways to cum, directly onto a magenta coloured erect penis. The figures do other things to the phallus, they kiss it, lean on, or even hang off of with by a noose. In Just hanging the woman limply hangs from a thin string that is tied around a dark blue, erect penis, set off from the lighter blue of the body. The elongated, emaciated and tiny woman hangs miserably from the male body which stands strong and hard and as the sight of her own destruction.

In Come unto me, set on a red male torso, two female figures kneel on either side of a penis, bowing down in prayer to a crucifixion scene drawn directly onto the erection. This reverence to the phallus is both humorous and striking – it is a desperate attempt to both mourn and to bring back from the dead that which gave such hope and joy – not a saviour, but sexuality. It also questions the extent to which sex is lived out as a metaphor for a religion and how it might be seen to satisfy desires for comfort, love, and ecstasy. The title too, points to this: Come unto me, spoken by Jesus, could easily be replaced here by Cum unto me, by a woman. The mourning women have come but they cannot cum – the time has passed and they must bid farewell to their life source - sex. Perhaps as a woman confronting her fifties, Emin is paying/praying tribute to the sexual drive of her youth. The religion of sex is portrayed as one that grows weaker and darker with the difficulty of experience and the changing priorities of age.

There are also images where Emin has added no figures, but just text, as in Deep Inside My Heart, where an image of a woman with a protruding belly is filled in with a dark black and blue form inside of her. Under it, Emin has written, ‘Dark Black Lonely Space’. Is that empty space within the woman in her heart, as the title suggests or in her belly, as the image does, or in both? And, is this regret for an abortion, or just an acknowledgement, a remembrance? Emin’s texts have no regard for grammar, and there are spelling mistakes and letters written backwards, all pointing to a raw, primal sort of pain, confusion, and anger.

Perhaps where the older artist, Bourgeois, has come to terms with the real complexity inherent in the not so clear-cut dichotomies of body/mind, loss/gain, male/female, the younger artist, Emin, is still grappling with them, and she injects a more present pain and longing to the works. For two artists whose work is known as so deeply personal, their artist collision results in something more than their own sexuality. Bourgeois, in the act of giving Emin her paintings, allows Emin space to be a complex woman, but also to have a taste of that glorious freedom of self-security and self-respect that comes with age. In an interesting parallel, Bourgeois signs each of the pieces by stitching her initials securely and neatly into the works, while Emin leaves a quick signature in pencil – one of the artists has dealt with the phrase “Do Not Abandon Me” and the other is still demanding it.

The exhibition continues at Hauser & Wirth at 15 Old Bond Street, London until 12 March. www.hauserwirth.com

I wanted to love you more
Archival dyes printed on cloth
61 x 76.2 cm / 24 x 30 in
Printed by Dye-namix, New York
© Louise Bourgeois Trust and Tracey Emin
Courtesy Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art and Hauser & Wirth

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