Grayson Perry at the Serpentine Gallery review ****

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Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

Serpentine Gallery, 8th August 2017

Grayson Perry has set himself up as an “astute commentator on contemporary society” as the blurb for his current exhibition would have it. And very good at it he is too. If you haven’t seen any of his Channel 4 documentaries which explore individual and collective identity then you should. He and his films are full of surprises.

These subjects are explored in this exhibition, together with the nature of “popular” contemporary art. Whilst I admire the man, the few pieces of his art that I had seenup to now (a couple of the pots and some drawings) have underwhelmed. Not here though. Context clearly is all.

The first room has a few good laughs with its ceramics exploring the role of the contemporary artist. In particular “Puff Piece” which contains quotes that Mr P has attributed to art critics about his work tickled me. But this is hardly ground-breaking. Though the fact that Mr P is way more visible than most contemporary artists, and chooses to engage with many different people and record the results, makes his art more stimulating in my book. I was a little less interested in the room of works which were produced in conjunction with a recent TV series, All Man, which explores masculinity in contemporary Britain. The documentaries are fascinating but the objects, a skateboard, bicycle, motorbike, shrine, which have been “feminised” and “infantilised”, don’t really do much for me. There is some admiration in the craft and they have a charm but that’s it for me.

The main gallery however is way more interesting. Here we have the pair of pots that Mr P produced for another recent documentary, Divided Britain, which pictorialise social media comments and images from groups of ardent Leave (from Boston, Lincs) and Remain (Hackney) voters in last year’s Referendum. As Mr P observes what is striking is the commonality not the differences. The two tapestries in this room, Battle of Britain and Red Carpet, are marvellous. Battle of Britain, with its allusions to Paul Nash, takes an imagined landscape in his native Essex and overlays symbols of contemporary Britain. Red Carpet uses an imagined map of Britain to relate key social media words and phrases around a theme of Us and Them.

Further on we see another beautifully crated tapestry, Death of a Working Hero, redolent of the trade union banners paraded at the annual Durham Miners Gala ,full again of striking details. Animal Spirit is a fine wood-cut depicting a bear of sorts and other symbols derived from financial markets. I would also point out the folk art “bronzes” King of Nowhere and Our Mother in the larger rooms.

Now to be fair none of this is new territory for Mr P, nor is any of this particularly subtle. And the criterati love having a pop at Mr P on exactly these grounds. It seems his artistic output is sullied in their eyes precisely because he courts recognition and uses this as the platform to explore his chosen. I say good on him. And judging by the attention being devoted to the works by a range of visitors it works. My favourite arse about face argument was in the Telegraph review of this exhibition which argued that Mr P’s TV stints have no “real bearing on Perry’s value as an artist”!! Of course it does. This daft statement lays bare the dilemma of the “proper” artist and the symbiotic critic since the dawn of Modernism. I don’t want the uncultured hoi-polloi to know what I am doing or why I am doing it but I get really wound up if I am completely ignored and can’t sell.

Britain does appear to be fractured by a cultural schism between the “outward-looking, university educated, metropolitan, liberal, tolerant” half (maybe a little less) and the “rooted, inward-looking, threatened, conservative” half (maybe a little more). Or is this complete b*llocks and just lazy stereotyping? Are our politicians pandering to these stereotypes? How best to facilitate the debate around issues of national and personal identity? These seem to me to be vital questions for an artist to explore, and Mr P, albeit that he sometimes uses tools that do not go far beyond the novelty however well made, should be commended for the playful and intelligent way he sets about his task. And he is sufficiently self-aware not to be in any danger of disappearing up his own arsehole in the manner of much contemporary art whose “social criticism” is either desperately banal or so well hidden as to be meaningless.

This exhibition runs through until 10th September before shooting off to the Arnolfini in Bristol. Ignore the critics. Take a look. Plenty of other people are. Turns out as contemporary art goes (and I mean contemporary not the canonic art sanctioned in artistic old age or posthumously) it is pretty popular.

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