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X-pression: sex and sexuality in art

Part 1: the sexual act

By Mike Brennan

Cecily Brown

Two Figures in a Landscape, 2002 / New Louboutin Pumps, 2005

Cecily Brown - sexuality in art
© Cecily Brown

The vast majority of Cecily Brown's paintings depict some form of sexual activity, yet even though the artist derives much of her material from pornographic sources, the resulting works rarely seem explicit in any conventional sense.

This apparent paradox is largely due to Brown's technique, a meeting of abstract expressionism with traditional figuration in which subjects become fragmented and picture planes blurred.

Recognisable images emerge only gradually from a dense web of gestural marks, a fact that has become more pronounced in recent years as her painting edges closer towards pure abstraction.

Cecily Brown
© Cecily Brown

Nevertheless, even the artist's least representational work remains a vivid expression of the carnal in its most fundamental sense - a celebration of flesh.

Brown frequently references Old Master evocations of the naked body, while modern, flesh-fixated artists such as Bacon and De Kooning are likewise an influence.

De Kooning once stated that, for him, flesh was the reason oil paint was invented, and in Brown's work, too, there is a clear symbiosis between subject matter and medium.

It has often been noted that, quite apart from the eroticism of her content, the artist's painterly technique exudes its own metaphorical sexuality through a combination of flurried or pounding brushwork, sensual colour and, above all, a constant merging of parts.

For Brown, it seems, the act of painting is in itself a highly voluptuous endeavour; or at least her work leaves us with little alternative but to see it as such.


Tracey Emin

Good Smile, Great Come, 2000 / Every Bodies Been There, 1999 / Bed, 1999

Tracey Emin, sex in art
Images © Tracey Emin

Famously, Emin's practice is almost entirely auto-biographical, with particular emphasis on candid reference to her own sexuality.

Yet sex, for Emin, is far from straightforward. Inextricably linked to an equivocal self-image, it vacillates constantly between positive and negative associations.

While the neon work Good Smile, Great Come provides a frank celebration of sensual pleasure, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With - one of her earliest works and since destroyed in an art warehouse fire - is far less conclusive in meaning.

Listing a series of bed-mates on the inside of a tent, the roll-call of names seems to serve, on the one hand, as a triumphant record of past conquests, yet can also be construed as abjectly self-critical, a Hall of Shame reflecting a notionally promiscuous past.

In yet another reading, the piece becomes a touching record of intimacy and loss, especially when we realise that not all the names are of sexual partners.


Tracey Emin, monoprint

Even in the many works that clearly identify sex as a source of painful emotional states, Emin's own sense of identity remains uncertain, a trait especially noticeable in her frequently explicit monoprint drawings.

Often incorporating texts expressing deeply felt anxieties, the artist's conflictive self-image translates into portraits in which she appears simultaneously brazen - a naked, open-legged sexual object - as well as vulnerable, exposed and fragile.


Tracey Emin, Bed

Nuance and uncertainty is again a feature of the installation Bed, which reinforces its obvious sexual association through stained, crumpled sheets and a surrounding mess of discarded condoms and underwear.

Yet its alternative significance as a place of illness or convalescence - a refuge, in this case, from a bout of deep depression - is also made clear by its state of neglect, vodka bottles and cigarette butts mingling with the chaos of objects at its side. Emin's bed simultaneously represents wild abandon and a deep sense of abandonment.

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