Ever alert to shifting social mores, trends and contemporary obsessions, Grayson Perry – a benign modern-day Hogarth – turns his attention across The Pond in his latest exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery.
Here are various ceramics, a big tapestry and large-scale print all inspired by his road trip in the USA in the summer of 2019 (and now the subject of a 3-part TV series on Channel 4). The works are his personal artistic response to observations, encounters and conversations during his travels in America – from African-American businesspeople in Atlanta to the East Coast liberal elite and farmers in Wisconsin. Through his TV programmes, and his artworks, Perry seeks to understand how Americans today view age-old, seemingly intractable issues of identity, race, money and class –and considers what might be done to overcome the divisions in their country (and in our own) – at a time when the political and culture war faultlines seem more aggressively drawn than ever before, as the country prepares for the 2020 presidential election.
“If I think of American cultural power, the image that pops into my head is a huge Abstract Expressionist painting, a Cold War symbol of a self-confident land of the free.” – Grayson Perry
Perry pays homage to Abstract Expressionism in his Very Large Very Expensive Abstract Painting (2020), which is in fact a tapestry whose layers reflect some of the cultural and social archaeology of Manhattan, once the epicentre of the art world, now a hyper-expensive enclave of the Liberal Elite. The tapestry weaves the melting-pot of cultures and citizens which make up modern New York City with a “splurged”, Jackson Pollock-inspired abstract painting and a map of modern New York, its streets and subways threading through it like pulsing veins and arteries. The work celebrates the vibrancy of Pollock’s drip paintings and the frenetic energy of modern NYC. Pasted collage labels set out the economic, social and cultural forces that ensure the glass floor under the affluent liberal elite is maintained: the city’s districts are labelled with words like Gentrification, Meritocracy, Knowledge Economy and Individualism which compete with less complimentary but piercingly accurate tags that immediately identify these “high net worth individuals” and their preoccupations – Botox, private education, entitlement, anxiety….
Similarly, the pot The Sacred Beliefs of the Liberal Elite (2020) – which Perry admits is the kind of cultural appropriation which appalls the Liberal Elite (it’s based on a Native American pot in the Arts Institute of Chicago and is adorned with naive symbols and figures) – is covered in labels which mock the virtue signalling, champagne socialism and piety of that demographic: “Some gay people have bad taste”, “This pot contains 67% original ideas”. In this, and the large tapestry, Perry’s goading that class, challenging their assumptions, certainties, and sense of entitlement, while also making us laugh. His works are always witty, entertaining and fun. Perry may relish satire but he’s never cruel.
What I love about Perry’s ceramics in particular is how he “re-imagines”, if you will (some may call it “cultural appropriation”) traditional designs such as ancient Chinese or near Eastern pottery and uses these elegant objects as a vehicle for his sharply-observed commentary on the less attractive elements of contemporary life. Warhead is based on an ancient Persian ceramic, the original covered in white cracks which Perry has faithfully reproduced on the surface of his pot. The main design of the pot is representations of slave ships, while the pudgy, grinning face of Donald Trump adorns its conical lid.
Another pot, Japanese, Korean and Persian Influences (2020), uses the technique of ‘wabi-sabi’, whereby the repair, obvious in its gilded seam, is believed to enhance the original, while its greenish-blue glaze recalls Korean celadon ware. In this work, multiple cultural influences come together, reflecting the many immigrant communities which make up American society today. Look closely at the design and you will see not beautiful things but drones, company logos, coffins, cars, crosses, bombs and guns.
“I wanted to make something that was exquisite in a traditional seeming way yet was a total hybrid and also reflected the crassness and violence often found in US society.” – Grayson Perry
A series of plates, glazed in the traditional ochre and brown of early English press moulded slipware, a type of vernacular pottery which was common at the time of the English Civil War and which often depicted King Charles, is used to illustrate the current civil war raging in the US – the culture war. Donald Trump replaces King Charles astride a horse, a hat teetering on his bouffant hair. On another plate, Trump is portrayed as a farting lion. This kind of pottery, with its lively, crudely-drawn figures and symbols, would have been produced by early European settlers in the US, and is now very popular with collectors who love early folk art. Perry uses these plates to poke fun at artworks produced by leftwing artists who seek to attack the right from their patronising, highly-educated standpoint.
One of the most beautiful pieces in the show is the Pale Virtue (2020) vase, its delicately-coloured crackle glaze covered with the pious lexicon of the politically correct, in particular those who signal their virtue via social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram who want to be seen to be “doing the right thing”.
The other big work in the show is The American Dream (2020), a large etching in the three colours of the American flag, inspired by anti-Communist propagandist posters from the 1950s while also recalling early maps of America, which illustrates the culture wars which currently rage across the country. Off the east coast, a storm is brewing – Hurricane Woke. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is portrayed as a godlike figure, who represents all social media mogols who make huge fortunes from the advertising which propagates and prolongs the culture wars online by using algorithms which encourage outrage, conflict and polarisation – and keep us scrolling. It’s a vivid work, its warplanes, ships and other combatants labelled with the issues du jour – Climate Change, Black Lives Matter, Social Justice. The British Isles is clearly visible in the top right hand corner of the map, reminding us of our ‘Special Relationship’ with the US and that we too are in the grip of the same conflict.
Typically of Perry, the works in this show are provocative and intriguing, witty and entertaining, and each piece is beautifully crafted (he makes all his ceramics by hand). He does not shock but rather wants us to pause to think, to consider where we are now and reflect on what might be done to overcome the divisions which are fracturing US society (and ours too).
Grayson Perry: The MOST Specialest Relationship continues at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, Hoxton, London N1 7RW until October 31. Entry is by timed ticket. The exhibition is also available to view online via the Vortic Collect app. Further information
Images: Victoria Miro Gallery
Reviwed via the virtual exhibition tour
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