The Vanity of Small Differences. Grayson Perry. Temple Newsam Hall.

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The Agony in the Car Park. Grayson Perry 2012. Courtesy of the Victoria Miro gallery.

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
Bernard Shaw. From the preface to Pygmalion.

Class lies at the heart of English society and it always has done. It defines us in the way that we live, the words that we use and the choices we make. Class mobility is far rarer and more difficult than we would like to think. If you move into another class you are likely to give away your origins in a hundred small ways that the natives of your new class will notice immediately. Grayson Perry’s series of six large tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, is an astute and exuberant look at the different modern tribes in English society. He tells the story of the rise and fall of an upwardly mobile IT consultant Rakewell. Like Hogarth’s rake in The Rakes Progress he comes to an unfortunate and untimely end and there are references to Hogarth throughout the series, as well as allusions to classical religious paintings from the medieval period. Grayson Perry’s tapestries have the same telling detail and earthy quality that The Rake’s Progress series has. The deadly accurate social commentary in them was taken from life, as they were made alongside his BAFTA award-winning television series about taste and the people and situations in them spring from direct observation.

The lives of ordinary people are given a touching dignity and grandeur as they are woven into the fictional story. Cage fighters present gifts to the baby Rakewell and his mother, who is bringing him up alone with the help of her nan. As a young man he sings karaoke, emoting with his microphone, idolised by those listening, a modern Christ in front of a cruciform crane. Finally a successful IT entrepreneur he watches as a sad-faced upper class stag is about to breathe its last, attacked by a pack of thoroughly medieval looking dogs. His death is recorded in the final tapestry and the accident scene in a characterless modern retail wasteland becomes a kind of Pieta. Each image carries a weight and meaning of its own while being part of the unfolding greater story. A young woman looking at them alongside me marveled at the detail, “every time I look I see something different”. Everyone around me was fascinated. A small boy- who was probably about seven years old- pointed out the pug with the curly tail to his little sister and read out some of the text which wound its way across the tapestry in which Rakewell escapes his humble origins, pronouncing the unfamiliar words carefully. “He was welcomed into the sunlit uplands of the upper classes”. Text is an important part of the images. It is all verbatim speech from the people Grayson Perry met in the filming of the television series, and it both explains and amplifies what is going on. There is something epic about the tapestries, both in their size and in their ambition and the story itself has a grand sweep to it. The rise and fall of a single human life is laid out before us. There is no judgment being made, just a fearless recording by Grayson Perry, of what he saw, his observations woven into a new shape and meaning by his Art. It reminded me of Arthur Miller’s wish, in his play Death of a Salesman, to show that the downfall of an ordinary flawed man could have the impact of a classical tragedy.

I wasn’t sure that Temple Newsam Hall was a good home for The Vanity of Small differences, despite the echoes of class consciousness that a great house provides. They were sometimes poorly lit and positioned so that it was hard to get a detailed look- something that they cry out for. In spite of that I am very grateful for the fact that it is touring, allowing so many people to see the tapestries. One day I hope that I shall see them again, beautifully lit in a clear space where the whole story can be seen easily in sequence.

This series is a real feast for the eyes and as time passes it will become an even more poignant and telling chronicle of our life and times. A moment in our society has been captured forever by an artist who is as shrewd as he is talented. I wonder what those people who look at The Vanity of Small Differences in two or even four hundred years time will make of us?

Grayson Perry in conversation at the Yorkshire Museum. 15-05-14

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Any chance to see the artist Grayson Perry in conversation is a very hot ticket indeed and an almost immediate sell out. Those of us who had the chance to see and hear him at the Yorkshire museum were among the lucky few who have had the chance to be in his presence. If that sounds a bit high flown then I apologise, but that’s how it felt. It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your heroes as I did, before the talk, after he had opened the museum for the evening. The man himself was as funny, wise and down to Earth as ever, of course. He can’t help the fact that some of his admirers become overawed.

The questions were all based around Grayson’s bear, Alan Measles, who was present on a rare outing having left his throne on the artist’s desk. One of Alan’s admirers even asked to walk down to the front and present him with a piece of writing, and she did just that, in spite of the fact that Grayson reminded her that Alan couldn’t read. Did I mention about becoming over awed? Alan is an example of what psychologists call a childhood transitional object. These can be hugely important to children and give them great support and comfort when things are difficult. For Grayson, who had a traumatic childhood, Alan was a lifeline, a place where he could “park part of me that didn’t work without a key that I had to hold onto to survive”. Alan was a talisman, a huge part of him, which allowed him to grow and create. He would commission Grayson to make Lego models and aeroplanes- allowing his creativity to flourish and develop. Looking back Grayson said that he “carried who I am now then”. As time went on and the anger associated with what happened to his owner early in life was “detoxified” his role changed and he became a guru figure. When Grayson was preparing his wonderful exhibition “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum he said that the artist that he had loved most was age, which gives things a wonderful patina, and Alan Measles is a beautiful example of that as he has become older, both wiser and more vulnerable. I found it very touching when Grayson said that he had “worked hard to get him the appreciation that he deserves over the years.” He is a bear with star quality- not every transitional object can carry the weight that is put on them as he does. They have to have it in themselves. Grayson was asked what he wanted to happen to Alan after his death and while he said that he would not mind as he would be dead, he also said that he likes to know where Alan is and it was clear that he was keeping very careful hold of him. Alan’s physical frailty is becoming a new concern as time passes.

There were many more general points to think about too. I agree with Grayson that in a digital age reality has become more powerful. Pilgrimages are a powerful theme in his work, and the many people (including myself) who had been anxious for the chance of a word, or more particularly a photograph, before the talk were proof of that. He is concerned that children’s innate, private creativity is being hijacked by large corporations like Disney who have a vested interest in persuading large numbers of little girls to share the same dream. This is something else which I completely agree with. Left to themselves children’s fantasies are a great deal wilder and more original that anything that Disney could dream up in a one size fits all fantasy. Like Grayson himself I continued childhood play until much later than many children do, so this is something that I feel strongly about.

There was a fascinating insight into what it is like to try to assess a finished piece of his Art with clarity when Grayson said that what he had produced was always fighting with the image of how he hoped that it would be and all the other things in the world. He is a supreme craftsman as well as an artist. He makes work for himself- as any artist must- and if other people like it that’s great. He remains deeply serious about what he does but he is also a perfect example of the artist as court jester, challenging boundaries, bringing the past to life and giving it meaning in the present. An experimental human!

I love what Grayson Perry does, not in an intellectual arty farty way but at a deep human level. I was a solitary, imaginative only child and I understand where the roots of what he does came from. I am not in the business of worshipping Alan Measles- that would be to misunderstand completely what is going on here- but I am deeply grateful that he was there for Grayson Perry and gave us so much to wonder at in a long creative career which is by no means over yet. I have now seen both of them in person and an ambition which I never thought to achieve has been fulfilled, along with a teddy bears picnic!

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The Family in British Art. Millennium Gallery Sheffield. 04-02-12

Click on the links to see images of the art works if you wish.

The real joy of this exhibition lies in its variety. There is an enormous range of work here, in a relatively small space, by the widest range of artists that you can possibly imagine and from a wide range of historical eras. Every medium is represented. I defy anyone to walk round it without finding something to like. Seeing such a disparate selection of work, united only by its subject matter, the family, adds great resonance to the individual pieces. The family is a broad, intimate and emotive subject, and one which has been at the heart of painting and sculpture. Those who could afford it have always wanted a record of their nearest and dearest, and since the moment that the majority of people were given the means to record images of their family for themselves the world has been awash with them. Family means many different things to different people, and evokes strong emotions in everyone. Those who have no family are looking for one. We all need intimacy, however difficult and painful life may be because of it. It is a strong subject for any artist and makes for a powerful exhibition. The brief verbiage for each exhibit has been written with unusual insight and it is well worth reading, making a thought provoking addition to the works.

Given the intimacy of the subject it is not surprising that many of the works are telling a moving and sometimes painful story. There are two wonderful works by Stanley Spencer on show, paintings which are so blisteringly personal that they stop you in your tracks. His nude portrait of his wife Patricia Preece, from 1936, is both heartbreaking and disturbing. She is staring straight out at you, challenging you to meet her gaze, and her naked body is painted with obsessive detail. Every pore is laid out for us, from the blue veins in her breasts to the small patch of reddened skin at her neck which has been exposed to sunlight. It is a formidable image of a formidable woman and seeing her through the eyes of Stanley Spencer you can understand why he was sometimes reduced to impotency in her presence. The second painting, The Lovers from 1934, is a charming image of unashamed open affection in which a dustman and a washerwoman embrace. He is clutching her tenderly in front of an audience of mildly shocked and disapproving neighbours who are all watching intently. It makes you feel that perhaps Stanley was portraying a joy in intimacy that he longed to have for himself but couldn’t find.

For sheer beauty it is hard to beat Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of his daughters chasing a butterfly, from 1756. It has a tenderness which is in contrast to his more formal portraits of wealthy sitters. The brushwork is quick and light, suggesting movement, and there is a look of  intense concentration on the faces of the two girls. Even here there is more than simple beauty going on. The younger daughter May is holding out her hand and looking towards the butterfly which they are chasing. May was named after a sister who had died two years earlier and it is hard to imagine that her lost sister was not being immortalised by Gainsborough in the short lived fragile beauty of the butterfly.

There is some interesting and enigmatic photography in the exhibition. A beautiful early image of a mother and sleeping child by Julia Margaret Cameron, Devotion from 1865, is another hymn to the fragility of young life at the time. Martin Parr’s modern photograph of two children eating ice creams on a seafront from his collection The Last Resort makes you wonder whether they are really having a happy day out or not. Both faces are covered in ice cream, the boy looks combative and the girl stares out at us as if she is about to speak. We will never know what she is about to say.

Thomas Struth’s photograph, The Smith Family from 1989, is a fascinating examination of family likeness. It is made all the more interesting thanks to the fact that they also seem separated and still thanks to the long exposure which he uses in his work. The eight family members are both bound together by the ties of family and alone. Ted Duncan’s photograph, Absent Friends from 2005 is hard to even recognise as a photograph, it is more like a Craigie Aitchison painting, far removed from an image of reality as we would see it from the naked eye. An adult female figure and a small boy, possibly a mother and child, are facing each other and she is leaning towards him, seeming to tell him something but there is no telling what. The two figures seem to be barely there at all, there are no facial features, no facial expressions, just the simple body language to give us a clue. It is an image which expresses Ted Duncan’s own longing for a family of his own after growing up in a series of foster homes. Is the mother telling the small boy his past? If she is, we can never know it.  I couldn’t find an image of it afterwards on the web to link to and somehow that seemed very appropriate.

There are two very poignant video pieces from Gillian Wearing and Mona Hatoum. 2 into 1 by Gillian Wearing shows a mother and two sons speaking very honestly and openly about each other, but the soundtrack has been re synched so that we see the words of the mother coming out of the mouths of the boys and vice versa. It is a simple but very telling exploration of what is said, or not said, between the generations and the power of conditioning. An obsessive love and concern is contrasted with the knowledge that a mother and child will not usually allow themselves to be heard speaking with such directness. When the mother says- through the mouth of one of the boys- that when you have children you are constantly faced with the border of love and hate it is a truth which many mothers may feel from time to time under the intense pressure of bringing up a child, but few will allow themselves to articulate.

Mona Hatoum’s work, Measures of Distance 1988, showing hazy naked images overlaid with Arabic text, read out in English,  is also about intimacy between a mother and child. It examines the time when Mona Hatoum was unable to return home on the outbreak of war in 1975 and she and her mother were forced to communicate by letter. Her mother speaks openly about sexuality and desire, breaking the taboo about children seeing their parents as sexual beings, in a way that she may not have done in other circumstances. It is a strong heartfelt piece. So strong that two teenage girls who sat down confidently in front of it were instructed to come out by their father. “Your mother doesn’t want you to see this one.”

The darkness at the heart of family life is one of Grayson Perry’s key motifs and one of his beautiful glittering pots, Difficult Background made in 2000, is on show. Idealised pale blue images of 1950’s children smiling and playing are set against a war torn background and a fiery orange sky. We often idealise childhood, both our own and that of others, but the truth is rarely that simple. The nostalgic beauty of memory plays tricks on us.

A small piece by Rachel Whiteread, Untitled 1993, is a simple cast of a doorknob in bronze. It is dealing with the intimacy of touch and shared space both in the moment and across time, and it makes its point very neatly. Alice Maher’s piece The House Of Thorns is a small childlike boxy house covered in rose thorns. While I was looking at it a small boy dragged his father across to it and demanded to know why it was covered in thorns. His father simply said, “Do you think that they are safe in there”, which I thought was a perfect answer. It is a metaphor for the family as a refuge from the dangers of the world, but any adult looking at it and being reminded of a Hansel and Gretel type fairy tale house knows that nowhere is safe.

This exhibition is well worth a visit. It was far darker and more interesting than I expected it to be when I walked in, but then isn’t that also true of families?

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Grayson Perry. British Museum. 13-01-12

Grayson Perry, The Rosetta Vase, 2011. Image courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery and via http://www.britishmuseum.org.

Hold your beliefs lightly.

Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British museum is one of the most fascinating shows I have ever seen. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it before. It is a chance to walk into his world and see not only some stunningly beautiful new work of his own but also his own selection of artefacts from one of the world’s great museums alongside it. All of them have been personally chosen to reflect his own interests, passions, sources, and obsessions. He has called it “a journey into my own mind” and this is exactly what it is. You can get to know him from the choices that he has made and what you find is very likeable, deeply interesting and moving but also funny and charming. There is nothing pompous or self serving here, nothing didactic. All we are asked to do is look and enjoy. Putting the show together has clearly been a labour of love for Grayson and his respect and admiration for the artists and craftsmen and women who have gone before him shines out from every room. The people who made these objects are mostly forgotten but their work is their memorial and in this exhibition he has allowed them to live again. All of the objects are interesting and often beautiful in their own right but when you see them in the context of what they tell us about the work and influences of the single living artist who has chosen them they gain an extra layer of meaning, providing an insight into the mind of one of the most talented and original artists working in Britain today. Yes, he is that good.

Grayson Perry, The Frivolous Now © Grayson Perry

The new work which is on show is only going to become more fascinating as it ages and comes to take its place in history alongside the items from the collection. The contemporary references woven into the pots alongside the wonderful glazes and seductive decoration will form a snapshot of contemporary life which will slowly recede into the distance while the pots remain, a glittering record of a frozen moment in time. The most beautiful of them, for me at least, is The Near Death and Enlightenment of Alan Measles, which is a celebration of the fact that we can find a new beginning, even after the horror of the past has almost destroyed us. Alan Measles is Grayson’s god and alter ego, his childhood teddy, a guru who is there to allow him to transcend his own past with a combination of beauty and humour. It also allows all of us, whether we have faith or not, to look at the ideas and icons of religious belief and consider them in the abstract. Alan Measles himself is not present, of course, but his image recurs throughout the show and his personality remains its guiding light via that of Grayson Perry himself.

A Map of Truths and Beliefs. copyright Grayson Perry.

As well as the pots there are textiles and sculpture. A Map of Truths and Beliefs is a huge tapestry celebrating  the world’s pilgrim places in vivid colour. A smaller tapestry bearing Alan Measle’s mantra “hold your beliefs lightly” is set alongside an equally joyous Asafo banner from Ghana where heads are being cut off with great abandon and seeming delight. Juxtapositions like this are constantly pulling you up short as you walk round, making you think, smile or wonder.

Grayson Perry, Our Mother, 2009. Image courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery and via http://www.britishmuseum.org.

The two most moving new pieces in the show, for me at least, are Our Mother and Our Father, two figures who seem to stand for all those human beings who have gone before us and borne so much suffering so stoically. The mother is weighed down with her load of packages and belongings as she carries everything she has with her while looking tenderly at her baby. It is as moving a portrait of a mother and child as I have seen, and there are many as it is a universal subject that has been looked at many times over the generations.

The central piece of the show, a fitting climax, is the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman itself. A huge brown iron ship, heavy with symbolism and decoration, carries a prehistoric flint axe at its heart. This ship is a culmination of everything that has gone before, a monument to all those unnamed craftsmen who have worked and lived for thousands of years since that flint was carved and used, and it has real presence and authority. As you look at it you feel that you have come home. The theme of pilgrimage runs throughout the exhibition, from the stunning motor bike outside the entrance on which Grayson and Alan made their own pilgrimage to the tiny pilgrim badges, sacred objects, maps and art works inside which you have been looking at, and when you see the ship it feels like journeys end.

This exhibition says a lot for Grayson Perry both as an artist and as a human being. It has been put together with great love and honesty and shows that his own work has lasting power and beauty when set against objects and art from the past. You simply couldn’t produce a show like this unless both your own work and you yourself were worthy of it, you would be found out. He is certainly worthy of it.

Copyright: Patricia Rogers.