The
Neons

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Critical Review

Tracey Emin uses neon as an artistic medium like no other artist before has ever done. Neons have been around since the early 1960s, and have featured in the works of Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin or Glenn Ligon. Emin stands out, however, as the first artist to bring into such a commercial-focused medium her own intimate and emotional world of love, suffering and loss. This is evident through Emin’s choice of using her own handwriting for the neons, unlike the more predominant custom of using impersonal capital letters. Emin’s handwriting, as per her signature style, is hand-scrawled, written with her trademark left-handed style and replete with misspellings that endow the writing with such urgency and immediacy to them, as well as with emotional poignancy. The artist herself, her emotional life made of longing, comes to life through these works, bending the impersonal and cold character of the medium to Emin’s interest in diaristic and unapologetic artworks.

Even with neons, Emin finds the ability to shape the medium to her restless creativity, creating a broad and varying range of images. Some of the works in this series are made entirely of writing, whereas others fully display Emin’s creative range and ability with highly complex visual depictions, as in My Favourite Little Bird. Some present a mix of both, as in But Yea, where the text element seamlessly merges with her typical stylised visual depictions of female torsos, which is also available as a sketch (But Yeh).

Colour too plays a decisive role in Emin’s works. According to the artist, each neon has a different colour that matches the feelings and message behind the work. As Bonnie Clearwater remarks, Emin’s palette recalls Rothko’s palettes of pink, yellow and pale blue. The artist writes the words first, and then through a process of synesthesia she associates a colour, stating that “some just can’t be pink and some can’t be white”.

Why are The Neons so important?

“Neon is emotional for everybody, the neon and argon gases make us feel positive. That is why you have neons at funfairs, casinos, red-light districts and bars. It also has to do with the way it electronically pulsates around the gas. It is a feel-good factor. Neon can help people who suffer from depression” (Tracey Emin)

As emerges in the words of the artist, neon has always occupied a beloved position in the artist's oeuvre and in her critical reception. To this day, Emin’s neons are amongst the most sought-after works on the market and count amongst their cohort of collectors musician Elton John and model Kate Moss. Many of her neon works, like The Kiss Was Beautiful, have reached almost a cult status.

But more importantly, neon became essential to Emin’s production because of the feel-good and calm energy it can transmit. Emin began producing neons as early as the 1990s, with her first piece produced in 1995. In 2014, the artist decided to resort to lithography to make some of her favourite works, featured in this series, available to a broader public. The artist has stated repeatedly that she consciously chose neon for the positive emotional impact and energy it could bestow upon the viewer, which soothes the frank honesty and disillusionment that pervade Emin’s writings.

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