Much like the David Hockney show from earlier this year at Tate Britain, I feel as if a review of the Grayson Perry exhibition that has just opened at the Serpentine Gallery is somewhat superfluous. After all, such is the popularity of the man that it’s not as if any review would impact the expected attendance at this show. (The exhibition itself is rather wittily titled, The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, and there’s already notice of a queuing system in place when the gallery is full, which almost never happens for any other show at the Serpentine).
But also because I expect that, whoever you are, you’ve probably already decided what you think of Grayson and his art, and I suspect that there is nothing in this show that will change your mind.
The Serpentine Gallery is promoting this as, ‘a major exhibition of new work.’ But that is rather disingenuous. Chances are, if you have been following his various recent television shows, whether on Brexit, masculinity or identity, you will recognize most of the work on display here. Perhaps the show’s sub-title should therefore be, As Seen on TV!
Obviously, we’ve the famous pair of Brexit vases – huge ceramic pieces smothered in transfers of images Grayson collated from submissions from participants across the UK in his project to consider how both Remainers and Leavers identified themselves and their vision of the UK.
There’s also his phallic Gherkin-esque tribute to the bankers he met in his program on masculinity, as well as the tapestry he created of a housing estate, representing the gangland divisions of the territory. (One of my favourite pieces, that. I find it well-observed). And – from the same series – his tapestry dedicated to the remnants of the mining community in Durham.
Many of Grayson’s familiar hallmarks are here. Yes, we’ve the tapestries and ceramics, as well as the social and cultural observations, including jabs at the elitism of art. But there’s also the vibrant colour palette and the deliberately naïve representation of people and places.
There’s also Grayson’s blend of religious iconography and tradition with popular culture, as seen here in his depiction of Kate Middleton as a Virgin Mary/Mother Earth in skateboard art, and situating his beloved Alan Measles teddy bear as a Catholic shrine on the back of his (bright pink, obvs) bicycle. And there’s his recognisable fusion of folk and African art in his sculptures, such as in the touching piece, linked to gangs in the housing estate, of a young lad stabbed with over a dozen knives.
Interesting, yes. Of course. But perhaps it was all too familiar for me. And maybe I felt this show was, dare I say it, a bit safe. Grayson is one of our most interesting and eloquent cultural observers and commentators, and certainly the most active at including it in his art, even using it as a source for his ideas. But this is not a show of surprises. And, for the first time, I’m not even convinced the observation was always on point.
His television series on masculinity, I adored. I thought his interviews and subsequent artworks were nuanced and on the mark. And even as an ex-banker I can tell you that though his depiction of banking and bankers as desperate willy-wavers may be simplistic, it is on the money.
However, such nuance is absent in his Brexit works. A tricky subject to take on – especially given it still arouses such strong passions (and, admittedly, I include myself in that) – but one that probably required more groundwork than simply social media discussion and chatting to Arron Banks.
The result is that Grayson’s Brexit work does seem hinged on a class division interpretation, that the Leave vote was an emotional response from the working classes. Take for example his Brexit tapestry that hangs on the wall behind his Brexit vases. Here, we’ve Ocado vans in Remain land on the right-hand side, and Vote Leave graffiti by railway tracks on the left. We’ve even ‘Class War’ graffitied too in the most unsubtle of messages.
But this isn’t representative. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain, as did Liverpool. A class war explanation is simplistic and misleading. And I found the push to reconcile the sides, evident in his Brexit vases by using similar images for both the Remain and Leave ceramics, and a rainbow in the accompanying tapestry that unites the left and right-hand sides, to be, well, a bit trite, if I’m honest.
As I said on Twitter at the time, it’s obvious that both Remain and Leavers would send pictures of country pubs, pretty churches (ahem, I noticed no mosques) and beach fronts. We inhabit the same country, after all. The issue is that Leave voters would fill those scenes with White people who speak English only, whilst Remain voters are happy with filling these scenes with people from many backgrounds. And that isn’t a superficial difference. And the recent General Election also shows that this country remains more divided than united.
But, like I say, nothing I say here will change people’s minds. And probably rightly so. It’s great that Grayson is willing to engage with popular culture and difficult issues. He has made art accessible to so many with his art, his books, and his television shows, and that shouldn’t be underestimated. No matter my scepticism with certain pieces here, it will be a great scene to see so many queuing to enter an art exhibition. That’s not to be sniffed at, at all.
Serpentine Gallery, London, to September 10, 2017
You can see more from this exhibition in the album on my Facebook page.
1 Grayson Perry Matching Pair, 2017 Glazed ceramic Diptych Each: 105 x 51 cm Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London (photograph Robert Glowacki) © Grayson Perry
2 Grayson Perry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, Tapestry, Courtesy the artist, Paragon Press and Victoria Miro, London, Photography: Stephen White © Grayson Perry
3 Grayson Perry, Installation view © 2017 Robert Glowacki
4 Grayson Perry, Installation view © 2017 Robert Glowacki