12 MAY 2001, Page 44

More of 'me'

Martin Gaylord

Awhile ago I ran into an old school friend who, discovering what I did these days, asked me what I thought of all this dreadful contemporary art. He supposed I condemned it. I was forced to admit that I had grown to like, even admire some of the outrageous stuff he had in mind. But surely, my friend went on, not Tracey Emin. There he had me. I really don't know what to think about Tracey Emin, and I wasn't much further forward after visiting the current exhibition You Forgot to Kiss My Soul at White Cube'.

This is a good deal better than previous displays of her work I have seen, for example the notorious one for the Turner Prize two years ago at which her bed first appeared. It is better integrated, and better arranged. But, essentially, it is more of the same. Most prominent are some bits of agreeably worn Margate bathing-hut type architecture alluding to the Emin past (extensively documented in interviews, profiles and her own work). Within these are a couple of videos at which you have to peer as if at one of those antediluvian machines on the pier. All around are her embroideries, drawings, a couple of pensees in neon, something that looks like a hugely Meanwhile, over at the Saatchi Gallery, there is New Labour, an exhibition into which Emin's embroidery would fit very well. It is a show of what might best be described as subverted craft. Several of the exhibits look at first glance as though they might be paintings, but in reality none is. We are presented with collage — all with a whimsical or pornographic twist.

'Some exhibits,' a notice outside disingenuously states, 'may be considered unsuitable for children.' But you wouldn't have to be frightfully uncool, as this implies, to want to keep children away from this one (the pornographic animation in the Plasticine technique of Wallace and Gromit would be enough to put off most family parties). But then a lot of art is unsuitable for children — mainly because they find it incredibly dull (that is why those school parties that infest public art galleries are not such a good idea). There is quite a bit here — though not that animated film — which might interest suitable adults. That is, those who worry about whither contemporary art.

Of the artists in the show, one of the most intriguing is D.J. Simpson as a DIY Jackson Pollock, executing enormous abstracts of wavy and straight lines by carving into coloured board, by the look of it with a Black and Decker. The results are surprisingly imposing. Grayson Perry, on the other hand, is a potter with attitude. The closer you peer at his vases, the more of a shock you get. Instead of the usual stuff you get on vases, here you find a jumble of the unexpected, old cars, Old Masters, S&M orgies, Fifties furniture. The effect is not very nice, but original (one can't help wondering how they'd look with flowers).

Enrico Davies's embroidered figures in wool and thread on canvas look much like paintings. While Martin Maloney's vinyl collages are a bit like that advertisement for upmarket margarine — you can't believe they're not paintings. The results are a little cleaner and sharper, though, than are Maloney's actual paintings. But here are the same brightly-coloured figures executed as though by a talented 12-yearold who knows too much about grown-up life. Something about the style of the largest 'Slade Gardens SW9' — which is on a huge scale, and impressive — put me in mind a little of a 1950s figurative painting, and in particular John Bratby and the Kitchen Sink School.

Now, the Kitchen Sink School — there's an unlikely comparison with anything you might find in the Saatchi Gallery. But actually, with its emphasis on domestic squalor and gritty reality, the art of the last decade has had something in common with Kitchen Sink, It remains to be seen, however, which of Tracey Emin and her contemporaries will do better on the helter-skelter of art-world fame than poor old Kitchen Sink School, which is always about to be revived, but is never really back in fashion. enlarged wood-cut — and all of it, naturally, about her.

The embroideries take the form of cris de coeur, splattered with obscenity, which gives them a contemporary edge. 'Come unto me' goes the least obscene, but most blasphemous one, Everytime I fall in love I think Christ I am going to be crucified. So I close my eyes and become the cross. So Beautifull.' (It's characteristic of the artist that you aren't quite sure whether that final '1' is accidental or on purpose.) The show is given unity by the seaside mood. The neon — including the cringemaking title of the show — fits into this stroll-along-the-prom feeling. Even her scratchy little drawings, with their mottoes, have a homemade greetings card look. But if you are not fascinated by the romance of Tracey, there's not much here for you. And I am just not sufficiently interested either in her emotionally hyper-sensitive side — 'every moment of reality is a balance' nor in the aggressive, streetwise face (there is a video on show in which a menacing, leather-jacketed Emin tries to kick in the door of a more timorous one, perhaps alluding to this split).

In a way, contrary to my school friend's supposition and despite provocative pieces such as her notorious bed, she is an oldfashioned sort of artist. She produces figurative drawings, she used to paint quite well, in her general approach she is an expressionist. It seems likely that, if her favourite artist, Munch, were to be reincarnated, he too would start making videos in which he recounted all the terrible things that had happened to him, and how ghastly he felt. As it was, he was obliged to put it all on canvas. To succeed, expressionist art requires more distance, more formal coherence than Emin has yet managed.

On the other hand, in the age of the personality cult, she thrives. She advertises gin, massive profile/interview pieces appear in the broadsheets, Private Eye runs a cartoon strip largely based on her. The foundation of her national fame was probably her appearance on a television discussion about the Turner Prize more drunk than anyone has ever been on television before or since. The British may still not know all that much about art, but those who behave extremely badly in public, they take immediately to their hearts.