Christine Lindey admires the slyly subversive, anti-establishment and egalitarian themes of Grayson Perry's latest exhibition.
Flamboyant, transvestite artist Grayson Perry, who delights in exposing middle-class and art-world pretensions, has plenty to say and provides plenty to look at in The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, the free show of his recent work at London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s a snapshot of the muddle and contradictions of contemporary British life, imbued with humour and generosity of heart. Seeking mass appeal, Perry uses accessible styles and mediums through which to challenge his public’s social assumptions.
View on Exhibition Photo: Robert Glowacki
Questioning preconceptions about gender, sexuality and masculinity is a major theme. On entering the gallery Reclining Artist, a massive woodcut print measuring almost three metres by two metres, greets the public. A technical feat, it’s the epitome of cliched Western art, featuring a life-size nude lying on a sofa staring impassively and wide-eyed at the audience. It has women’s breasts, painted nails, the face of Perry’s female self and male genitals. The style is realist, the meaning is provocative.
Nearby hangs Gay Black Cats MC, a joyful applique wall hanging in the style of 17th-century Asafo flags by Africa’s Gold Coast Fante people. Co-riding a pink bicycle and grinning with infectious delight, two cats cling to each other like lovers, the fabrics’ clear bright colours reflecting their carefree glee. The title implies that they may be of the same sex, while their colour suggests black men, so challenging outdated sexual and racial prejudices sadly still prevalent.
Another major theme of the show is social inequality. Several works address the desperation left by deindustrialisation, world poverty, the wars it fuels and the mass media’s cliched concealment of these beneath celebrity glitz. We see urban desolation, soulless motorways, a defunct mining village, suburban houses, tower blocks, a forest of electricity pylons, guns, pet cats and dogs, royalty, pop stars and politicians.
Red Carpet is a tapestry based on the design of Afghan war rugs. An urban “map” of streets and squares, named by current media buzz words, is superimposed over a geometric pattern formed by tower blocks overflown by a helicopter and a war plane. A small but bright turquoise square titled Them is peppered with words such as The Liberal Elite, Creative Industries, Gastropubs, Millennials, Gated Community, Hipsters and Westminster Bubble. It is surrounded by vast gloomy red “streets” whose words include Us, Anti-depressant, Excluded, Zero Hours, Garden Centre, CCTV, The North, Affordable Homes and Obesity Epidemic.
Our Mother Photo: Stephen White
One of Perry’s most moving indictments of poverty is Our Mother, a cast-iron sculpture of a refugee woman inspired by West African art.
Cradling a skinny baby in one hand and gripping a staff headed with a Madonna with the other, she somehow trudges on her way, despite being burdened by a plethora of objects. Hung about her body are objects, including a heavy necklace of mobile phones, an ancient sewing machine, a transistor radio, wicker baskets and cooking pots.
Perry uses varied media, techniques and processes including pebbles, shells, ceramics, applique, tapestry, embroidery, brass rubbings and printmaking which have been designated as inferior hand crafts or folk art by “high art” arbiters of taste. Deemed to be extinct in Western industrial societies, these still survive among non-professional groups especially those made up of women and non-industrialised cultures.
He unashamedly draws on widely different visual formats, including medieval woodcuts, trade union banners, African, Afghan and central European folk art and thus has no “signature style.” This approach contests dominant high art criteria, which call for artistic uniqueness, while his stress on accessibility challenges its preference for obscure, “difficult” or oblique content.
The artist says that he chose the exhibition’s title to challenge these outlooks and because “it chimed with one of my ongoing ambitions — to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down.” The title taunts the middle-class dominated art world’s conflicted attitude to popularity. Its institutions seek high footfall to attract public funding — and corporate sponsors — while its aesthetic criteria revile art with mass appeal and privileges exclusivity, to signify its own “superior” social status.
Some of Perry’s work is over-detailed and the lack of selection gives it a frantic fussiness, so that the best works such as Gay Cats and Our Mother are those whose techniques impose visual clarity. But its multi-layered, knowing and sometimes contradictory content belies Perry’s cheery, media-friendly public persona. The sickly twee style of works such as Marriage Shrine echo the taste of Middle England, yet their subjects slyly confound its assumptions.
Perry’s popularity and status as a national treasure does not mean his work is no good. His opposition to bigotry opens up possibilities of being different and his exposure of inequality seeks to transform social attitudes. Yet his art is a sincere and effective call for tolerance of difference and eccentricity rather than a call to the barricades.
Grayson Perry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, Tapestry Photo: Stephen White
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! runs at the Serpentine Gallery until September 10, opening times: serpentinegalleries.org. This article was published by the Morning Star on 15 July.
Until she recently retired Christine Lindey was an Associate Lecturer in art history at the University of the Arts, London and at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is a visual arts critic for the Morning Star and her fifth book, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art c.1939 - c.1962, will be published in the near future.