Provincial Punk. Grayson Perry. Turner Contemporary.
Two things strike in this exhibition: a strong sense of Englishness and a creative link to an artistic heritage as far back as the antique world.
The classical urns, vases on closer inspection are deliciously subverted by montaged images that are frequently sexual in nature. Yet there is of course a precedent here. Many original attic vases although gentle in form carried obscene images. Curiously there is something disarming about the combination of sensual shape and pornographic message. As observers we are drawn in and although shocked by the images are not repelled and are therefore more receptive to their message.
Grayson’s graphic images are not simple the doodling’s of a boy ‘obsessed with his cock’. They comment on the realities of sexual need. Central is the issue of transvestism; there is a suggestion in the images of beautiful part-woman part-man that sex and gender are fluid and should be celebrated as such. Perry’s work is at all times witty. Thus he gets away with much. One urn shows a man pleasuring himself with a vacuum cleaner which creates a laugh out loud response. Another contrasts explicit images with pictures taken from vintage knitting patterns. The resultant clash clearly flags up the tension between stylised gender roles and the bald truth. What strikes one is the artist’s distinctive illustrative style. His drawing verges at times on the cartoon, a style in keeping with his satirical agenda. Females are beautiful yet have hands like claws, and always with black hair that links to harpies and witches, the men are paler figures by comparison. In keeping perhaps with Perry’s own need to have a colourful female persona in the figure of Claire his alter ego, who presides over many works.
Many of the vases and indeed other media are concerned with the working class, Perry himself being a working class hero. To a degree he champions their lot charting their near obliteration by the gentrification of the large cities. Perry is at all times honest in his work. We are shown chavs with pit bulls, burnt out cars, the warts and all of a culture under threat. There is neither sentiment here nor censure simply a labelling of a society that is being lost either by clawing its way on to the lowest rung of the middle classes or falling through the cracks into benefits scum.
Moving on from the ceramics, the vast maps are a revelation. Whilst the urns reference classical culture, these reference medieval maps. Map of Nowhere at first appears to be a contemporary Mapamundi but viewed from a distance the map takes human form. This then is a commentary on the internal landscape of modern man. The level of detail is extraordinary. The observer finds themselves with head on one side straining to pick up all the references. Again linking to the past there are castles, fortresses etc., all endowed with modern titles such as Internet Dating. This link between past and present suggests that human nature has not intrinsically changed. Although serious in intent again wit is deployed not least in the sense that the ancient buildings and detailing are reminiscent of computer games such as Clash of Clans.
Indeed a seam of wit runs through these maps. Balloon epithets recall the work of Rowland and Gilray as we are invited to laugh at social pretentions or lack of dignity. Here it is the body politic rather than the political world that is mocked. Human psychology is a constant throughout the collection but is focused in one map dedicated to mental illness, mapping conditions from bulimia to bi-polar. In this way it recalls a medieval map of the humours. Like its ancient counterpart it deals honestly and unsentimentally with mental illness.
The tapestries are grand in scale. The colours are gorgeous and rather like the urns invite us in only to receive some home truths. The first ‘Comfort Blanket’ celebrates Englishness, something we are reluctant to do bearing in mind its negative connotations. But here Perry flags up the best in our cultural heritage. Thus we have lists of all the people, foods, sayings that define us from Morecombe and Wise to Fish and Chips and our inherent need to say ‘Please ‘and ‘Sorry’. This piece has both wit and pathos. True these are aspects of Englishness that would be familiar to an audience of a certain age however a younger audience might not pick up the references. It maybe that this is a list to be updated in the future but at the same time there is a sad sense of a lost world. We tend not to remember our manners or celebrate our heroes now and Perry’s ulterior motive might be to remind us of the loss of our English identity. And in an uncertain time of social flux we need the comfort blanket of knowing who we are and where we came from.
There is a striking piece of sculpture that similarly links to this theme. Head of a Fallen Giant is a grim skull spiked with crude nails that on close inspection is embossed with English motifs such as the George flag. Violence is implicit in its construction and configuration and reflects the martial characteristics of the English nation. As with all the works that make social or cultural comment Perry seems at first neutral, merely presenting the facts , labelling the parts as he sees them. He skilfully walks a tight rope of ambiguity, we are not sure if he approves of our violent past, or is sickened by modern society. However the artist shows his hand more clearly in The Walthamstow Tapestry. This maps man’s journey from birth to death. In its crudeness of a baby sliding from its mother’s womb in a river of blood, it is at once modern but also reminiscent of rude screens in ancient churches that show man’s perilous path through life assailed by sin and temptations.
The sins however in this tapestry are very modern. It is riddled by consumerist products from Chanel to coca cola. The labels assail the character and by extension the audience. High end aspirational goods such and Gucci are degraded by being placed in the same category as MacDonald’s. On a base level it is all just stuff. The message is clear we have been reduced to consumers. We are the sum of our labels. Shopping is the new religion and it robs us of imagination and spirituality. The Devil is present here, a familiar medieval interpretation in red and horned making it clear that consumerism is the new demon whose temptation we are powerless to resist. A further tapestry amplifies the theme reacquainting us with the dark haired woman who would be beautiful if she was not so grasping, bedecked in designer goods from makeup to handbags her claw like hands avariciously reach out for the next item to purchase. These tapestries make the audience shift uncomfortable in their own Gap jeans and Clarks’ shoes, as the message drives home. There is a sense that the societal issues suggested in the maps and vases are come to a head here. Humanity in the earlier works was at least complicated with a psychological dimension but here in these later works Perry suggests that society is reduced to a shopping culture whose only aspiration is a fashion label.
These works span much of Perrys’ artistic life. The works are funny, provocative, thought provoking and shaming. They show the full range of his ability from ceramics to illustrations and tapestry. Be prepared to take a great deal of time studying these works and their rich detailing. In this sense the exhibition will pay dividends by repeated visits.
Fiona Sinclair © 2015.