Let Them Eat Conceptual Art!
'The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever' announces the new Grayson Perry exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery - and it wasn't far wrong on the day. There was a sizable queue for the free show, with people being let in 10 at a time, and I wondered if the title alone drew people in?
I thought I knew what to expect - I had after all watched several of Perry's tv shows and read some of his books. I tried to explain to some of my friends, who had never heard of him, what he was about - transvestite potter from Essex producing work with social comments, much like a modern day Hogarth. Seemed a reasonable description. I thought that my 11 year old son would be ok with that - he likes current affairs and a good graphic novel. And then we entered the building...
Oops! I'd forgotten about the blatant sexuality of Perry's work - and the very first piece on view, the size of a bedspread, is a reclined Perry as a naked Claire (though reimagined as a hermaphrodite), gazing directly at the viewer like Kate Winslet in Titanic ("Draw me like your French girls" and all that). A wonderful woodcut giving us an insight into Perry's paraphernalia and life, but not perhaps the best thing for a self- conscious preteen to see unexpectedly!
Unsurprisingly, most of my party didn't hang around for long, leaving me to lag behind at leisure!
Each room had a loose theme based on Perry's TV series on masculinity, on Brexit and on his more personal alter ego of Claire, his father figure, Alan Measles and their adventures together. It ends with a dip into Perry's marriage which is given a pseudo folk/ cult makeover.
Two things stand out. Firstly, that Perry gives a lot of thought to his work and that most of that thought process, sketches, research, ideas etc. end up on the piece. Lots of information, intellectually interesting, but sometimes overwhelming and confusing. His works are at their best when there is an overarching theme or subject, and then within it you find further details and insights. 'Head of a Fallen Giant' is a great fantastical skull in its own right, but look closer at the surface textures and you can see the Houses of Parliament, a Union Jack, Tower Bridge, a crown and so on.
Head of a Fallen Giant, 2008
Secondly, is Perry's ability to use many forms of media to get his ideas across. The exhibition is full of tapestries, pots, woodcuts, metalwork, vehicles and even a genius skateboard (or 'Kateboard'). Mostly they are are manufactured by others, but unlike Damian Hirst, for example, they are unmistakably in the style and hand of Perry. A selection of sketchbooks at the end of the exhibition illustrate this nicely, with a small doodle of a pushbike for Claire, next to the room in which the fully formed version stands.
Lastly, I was impressed by Perry's use of historical forms - African figurines, medieval woodcuts, Victorian union banners, etc, reworked in his own inimitable style to illustrate an unrelated topic. Hence we get an African tribal figurine in a baseball cap representing youth gang culture and a medieval woodcut of a huge boar dominating a capitalist landscape of the City. He isn't afraid to change his style and draw on the past as long as it serves his purpose.
As you can probably tell, I loved it. Yes it's a bit weird, a bit crude and bit self- absorbed, but in this world of airbrushed clones and reality TV stars, Grayson Perry comes across as a breath of multicoloured fresh air, with a pink tutu. He exists as a living extension of his art and it is hard to separate one from the other. He seems to be enjoying himself anyway, regardless of what people think of his work and what he has to say. Fair play to him.