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Grayson Perry’s Brexit Britain

Grayson Perry’s Brexit Britain

In his current exhibition in London, he casts his sharp eye over a bleak situation 

In his current exhibition in London, he casts his sharp eye over a bleak situation 

Lily Le Brun | July 6th 2017

Grayson Perry (above, right) once said that his job, like all artists, was to notice things that other people don’t. The main difference with him, though, is that he (and his alter-ego, Claire) communicates what he notices not just through his art, but through very public avenues: prime-time television documentaries, packed-out lectures and bestselling books. Traditionally, artists have resented the idea that their words should accompany their visual work. Louise Bourgeois believed that to be an artist, you need to exist in a world of silence. Lucian Freud remarked that any words that came out of his mouth concerning his work would be as relevant to it as the grunt a tennis player makes when he hits a ball. David Hockney’s advice to artists? “Shut up and paint.” Nowadays, most ambitious artists accept the benefits of doing some publicity, but not many seem to relish it as much – or be quite so good at it – as Grayson Perry.

What he notices, sharply and sensitively, are the big issues affecting British society: toxic masculinity, deepening class divides, and the biggest of them all – Brexit. His on-the-ground approach to these subjects translates into effective broadcasting, as does his mischievous sense of humour and skills as a presenter and speaker. But what about his art? Is he, as a journalist asked him moments after winning the Turner Prize in 2003, a “loveable character” or a “serious artist”?  

Self-aware as ever, Perry has anticipated this type of criticism in his latest show, “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The pots, prints and tapestries, adorned with witty, pithy words and drawings, are trademark Perry. So is the title, which made him chuckle and which satirises the British tendency to think that too much success is a bit distasteful, and teases the art world for its paradoxical relationship with the notion of popularity. However, the show has attracted criticism for lacking a coherent message: unlike his television shows and books, there is no clear sense of his own take on the complex social issues tackled, other than it’s all a bit bleak. But it does reflect his roving curiosity, and how much he listens, observes and tolerates. And if he wants to share those qualities with as many people as possible, then good for him – and us. 

 

“Reclining Artist” (2017)

This is the first thing you see on entering the show: the naked artist, or rather an idealised version of the naked artist, and his cat Kevin, adopting the louche reclining pose of so many models from art history. Perry contrasts this fantasy with a more faithful rendition of his studio, giving water-bottles, keys and USB sticks as much prominence as weighty books and artworks. Alan Measles, Perry’s “teddy-bear and metaphor for masculinity and god”, as he describes him in the exhibition catalogue, appears three times; as a sculpture in the foreground, on the dress hanging above the sofa, and wielding a club on top of a tottering tower of books. 

 

“Matching Pair” (2017)

Earlier this year, Perry asked the British public via Facebook and Twitter to tell him how they voted in the EU referendum, and to send him pictures of themselves, the things they loved about Britain, their tattoos, people they admired, and their favourite brands and colours. He compiled all this visual information onto two almost-identical pots, one which represented the people who voted to leave the EU, and the other which represented those who voted to remain. The imagery swirling about both pots in a beautiful oil-slick blue glaze is not too dissimilar, neatly reflecting how much we all, in the end, have in common.  

 

“Animal Spirit” (2016)

Taking its title from a phrase that Perry noticed was often in the air following the financial crash, this huge woodcut of a beast that is half bull and half bear was made after a series of conversations he had with male financiers as part of his 2016 television series about masculinity, “All Man”. The abandoned baby, the three black crows and the hanging man represent the names of the traditional patterns in “Japanese candlestick charts” used by traders to analyse prices. “I’ve been interested in animal spirits as a euphemism for emotional overexuberance in the market,” Perry has explained. “The masculinity you see in the City is cloaked long ago under gentlemanliness and rationality and ‘good business practice’. The beast still lurks but he’s very well-behaved.”

 

“Our Mother” (2009)

This bronze figurine is a “universal pilgrim”, Perry says, bearing religious, cultural, domestic and parental baggage. Appropriately enough, he believes it is one of his most popular works. It was exhibited at his 2011 show at the British Museum, “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”, where the heavily burdened woman was emblematic of the search for meaning in life. In this show, she represents the quest for a place to call home. She has been positioned between the two Brexit pots as a sign of how central the issue of immigration was to the referendum. 

 

“Marriage Shrine” (2017)

Inspired by the Christian roadside shrines he spotted in a book on Lithuanian folk culture, Perry built his own shrine to love for his garden. He met his wife Philippa, a psychotherapist, in 1987 – a fact celebrated on a bronze plaque at the very top of the shrine. The figures’ stomachs are filled with mementos, such as a piece of the clip attached to their daughter’s umbilical cord, and a broken valve from a motorcycle that the couple spent an early date pushing up the hard shoulder of the M11 in the rain – one of the most romantic nights they ever spent together, according to Mrs Perry.

Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, Serpentine Gallery, London, until September 10th

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