louise bourgeois and tracey emin at carolina nitsch: “do not abandon me”

above images courtesy of carolina nitsch

this gallery exhibit will run through november 13, 2010 at carolina nitsch project room in chelsea, and is a rare chance to see some of the last works ever produced by louise bourgeois, the “last living surrealist.”  produced with the yba artist, tracey emin, similarly known for the explicitly autobiographical, psychological and sexual themes in her work, the international collaboration spanned 2009-2010.  louise bourgeois died this may in her 99th year, still tirelessly working and holding salons at her home here in nyc to encourage and foster artistic circles.

the elder artist seemed to have found a kindred spirit in the younger emin, trusting her enough to produce the original sixteen gouaches on paper, ship them off to tracey who then “responded” to louise’s originals by adding text, line drawings and, in some, more gouache, and titled them.  these drawings were then shipped back to ny, to be printed at dye-namix studio with archival dyes on cloth (from the catalogue)–another signature touch of the artists, both of whom work with fabrics to lend their work that increased intimacy and engender their pieces, underscored with emin’s signature bottom left in pencil, while louise’s is bottom right, the initials embroidered.

admittedly, i am not a hard-won audience.  i fell in love with bourgeois’ psychodramas, bizarre sculptures, and the way in which she translates her childlike sense of curiosity and being overcome by her world.  all is grand guignol:  landscapes of mutant forms, power struggles, inner turmoil externalized into nightmarish tableaux, alongside diminutive, diaristic and feminine works that explore motherhood, protection, loss and sexuality.  maman will always be a personal favorite:  the enormous metal spiders she creates to evoke the alien experience of being a mother, the impossibility of it, the need to become something both horrible and beautiful, the fight to protect the child and provide shelter.  the way in which motherhood distances mother and child from the rest of the world, that tiny body, perched up high in the air on those spindly, awkward legs.

what is so special about this collaboration is not merely that it feels so cohesive or like it was made by one person, or that it is highly expressionistic for bourgeois and a step forward into more resonant, restrained work for emin, but that it is the resultant effort between two female artists who worked together to create a story in pictures about eros and thanatos on both a primal and a spiritual level.  the cropped torsos depersonalize the bodies, make them anyone, yet they report their own stories and text.  the mostly primary colors bleed out and seem to vibrate against the stark white, the bodies are blurred, edges seep.  the sexuality in the works has varied tones:  humorous, lewd, playful, passionate, (self-)destructive, generative.

the dichotomies, here, are striking.  the swollen bodies suggest maturity, but the text reads like that of a child, complete with misspellings and backward letters;  the prints are graphic, true to the weight of the gamble– the unending need to connect, regardless of the concomitant loss.   the text adds a layer of both grief and transcendence to the carnal images: “i now know i am free free to leave this world  with no sentimental trail no blood to stop my soul from returning back to were(sic) it really belongs a world that is made up of a million suns i’ll become just a tiny part of that light.”   the titles, similarly, emphasize the emotional backdrop to the visual:  “it doesn’t end,” “i just died at birth,” “come unto me,” “waiting for you,” “i wanted to love you more.”

where emin can sometimes feel too deliberately vulgar or provocative for my taste, in these i found her contribution to be evocative, wry and, at times, charming.  in an interview, she spoke about being terrified about screwing bourgeois’ gouaches up with what she added, and a sense of sadness that they were completed while louise was still alive but that she–they, together–would not get to see them shown.  the posthumous exhibit lends them a bit of a haunted quality, the floating bodies one last treatise on how difficult it is to be both with and without another person.  these beautiful, emotive pieces are part of bourgeois’ final contribution to one of the longest careers in modern art and, characteristically, they are visceral, graceful, feminine, full of color and pain and all the fleshy, dramatic mess of us.

tracey emin and louise bourgeois, 2010, portrait by brigitte cornand, from the exhibit catalogue

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