Grayson Perry at Serpentine Galleries (until 10 September 2017)
Britain’s favourite transvestite potter and national treasure Grayson Perry RA once again casts his astute eye over contemporary society, its exigences and preoccupations, in a new summer show at the Serpentine Galleries in the heart of London’s Hyde Park.
I am in the communication business and I want to commnicate to as wide an audience as possible
– Grayson Perry
Perry is a sharp observer of contemporary life, using his art (or rather traditional crafts of pottery, metalwork, tapestry, and woodcut print) to comment on class, gender, sexuality, galleries and the art market, and notions of populism and popular culture. A benign modern Hogarth, his observations are insightful and witty, but never cruel. He is interested in people and the “tribes” and classes of Britain, the small differences and identifying markers which are unique to each group, while reminding us that we are not so different from one another after all. Central to this in the new exhibition is a pair of beautifully-crafted decorated pots, Matching Pair (2017), which featured in a recent Channel 4 tv programme about responses to Brexit. The pots are decorated with images supplied by the British public themselves, those that voted Remain and those that voted to Leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. The images were sourced via social media and Perry charted the progress of the creation of the pots via his own Twitter profile, which I follow. The amount of work and craftsmanship which has gone into these pots is remarkable: in addition to photographic transfers, they include sgraffito drawings, handwritten and stencilled texts, and other decorative elements. The two pots are identical in size and shape, mostly blue, and contain images of typically “British” things such as the seaside, bacon and eggs, the local pub, and walking the dog. The figures, whose models are real British people, on each pot are remarkably similar, yet they represent the most bitter political debate in our lifetime. Through these vessels, Perry demonstrates that despite being on opposing sides of the argument “we all have much more in common than that which separates us.”
What endears Perry and his art are his benign wit and humour and his ability to observe but never patronise. He also turns his gaze on himself and his gender in his examination of masculinity and male stereotypes, explored in this exhibition through tpically “male” pastimes and objects, such as a skateboard (which becomes the “Kateboard” with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and baby depicted like a Medieval brass) and a gaudy motorcycle, specially made for Perry and painted in childish ice-cream colours.
The role of art and the artist in today’s culture, in particular the celebrity status of the contemporary artist, has long been one of Perry’s preoccupations, and the exhibition title is a playful provocation encouraging visitors to consider what makes art popular and how such populism threatens the “exclusivity” of art. Perry is an enthusiastic advocate of art for all and believes galleries and exhibitions should be places where people feel welcome and comfortable, rather intimidated by “international art speak” and obfuscating captions and displays. The works in the first room of the exhibition explore the relationship between the artist, gallery, the public and the critic. The large woodcut Reclining Artist (2017) examines the artist’s relationship to the public and their interest in him. It is a powerful monochrome contemporary homage to Goya’s ‘La maja desnuda’ and Manet’s ‘Olympia’, with an androgenous Perry at the centre, surrounded by his stuff.
Other works look at contemporary British society, the mores and markers which define its class structure and the status anxiety of, for example, the middle classes. These aspects are explored in large, colourful tapestries, once the cloths which adorned the walls of the great houses and palaces of the aristocracy. Throughout these works, it is not the differences between us but our shared fundamental values which come across most strongly.
It is not a large exhibition but it is satisfying, enjoyable and humorous. Perry appropriates traditional crafts for his own ends and creates artworks which are colourful, playful and entertaining. I walked round the show with a permanent smile on my face – and goodness knows we need some good cheer in these troubled times.
Interestingly, whether by deliberate design or coincidence, the exhibition opens on 8 June, the day of the General Election, an occasion when once again sharply defined differences and similarities between us are exposed and rejected, embraced and befriended.
Matching Pair (2017), Victoria Miro Gallery
Grayson Perry, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (08 June 2017 – 10 September 2017). Image © 2017 Robert Glowacki