Image © Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry: ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’

Laura Garmeson

Variously described as artist of the masses, cultural commentator, “transvestite potter” and national treasure, if nothing else Grayson Perry is rarely ignored. The Turner Prize-winner is one of the UK’s most inventive and best-loved artists, with a large and distinctive body of work behind him comprising ceramics, tapestries, sculptures, prints, and drawings. But he is also a powerful voice amid the clamour of contemporary discourse: his television documentaries, Reith Lectures, articles and books have made him something of a pop culture sage and expert on the tribes that define modern Britain.

In a new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens – cheekily titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Perry addresses the many sides to the poisoned chalice of modern-day popularity. The highly commercialised nature of the art world means an artist’s popularity often translates into financial success. But Perry also points out that ‘in the twenty-first century to call an artist “popular” still has the lingering aroma of a put-down.’ Certain corners of the art establishment have never taken kindly to Perry, pouring scorn on his work at the same time as the crowds flocking to his shows have grown. Behind this hostility there seems to be a nostalgia for the days when the art world was a kind of elite private club, opaquely encoded to those who lacked the requisite background knowledge and ‘right’ frames of reference. But times are changing.


Image Credit: Stephen White © Grayson Perry
 
Popularity proves a rich seam for Perry to mine in this exhibition, spawning a colourful and eclectic array of artworks musing on personal and social identity, celebrity and politics. Perry’s art has the twin attributes of playfulness and of keeping its roots firmly planted in the rich soil of the society and times in which he lives. The great schism caused by Brexit is the latest phenomenon to be given the Perry treatment - the two sides of the divide embodied in Leave and Remain pots, optimistically entitled Matching Pair. The conception and fabrication of these pots was documented in the Channel 4 show Divided Britain broadcast earlier this year, and together they make a timely centrepiece to the exhibition.


Image Credit: 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
 
The content for each Brexit pot was crowdsourced over social media, with Leavers and Remainers sending in pictures of themselves, their tattoos, and what they love about Britain – raw visual material that now adorns blue, textured ceramic surfaces. Some trends stood out: the Remainers seemed intent on vaunting their ‘cultural capital’ at every opportunity, often photographed with a bookcase or a violin in shot, while the Leavers displayed an interesting predilection for tattoos featuring foreign words or symbols. The Leave pot features photographs of Nigel Farage, Churchill, and the Queen, while the Remain pot has Obama and comedian Stewart Lee. But Perry’s point is that more unites us than divides us, as the things people love about Britain turned out to be pretty similar for both camps: our pets, the local pub, nice gardens, post boxes.


Image Credit: Grayson Perry, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (08 June 2017 – 10 September 2017). Image © 2017 Robert Glowacki
 
Elsewhere, there is a chance to see some of the artworks made as part of Perry’s investigation into modern-day masculinity – also accompanied by a Channel 4 documentary, All Man (2016) and a book, The Descent of Man (2016) – which include a phallic marble-cast piece designed to symbolize big banker culture. Other pieces are displayed here for the first time, such as the self-referential artworks mocking celebrity like Puff Piece (2017), a shimmering blue-purple pot covered in glowing reviews of Perry’s work, and a large-scale monochrome woodcut print of the artist reclining nude in his studio. These pieces play to Perry’s strengths of humour, observation and self-awareness, and display both a fondness for and an exasperation with the art establishment of which he is now a part.


Image Credit: Grayson Perry, Puff Piece, 2016, Glazed ceramic, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London Photography: Stephen White © Grayson Perry

In an essay accompanying the exhibition, Perry states that his aim is the same as it has always been: ‘to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down.’ There has long been a prevailing attitude that all good art ought to communicate its unique message or truth obliquely, as though an artist were betraying some of the artwork’s ‘aura’ in being upfront. But upfront is what Perry is, and it does not seem to have dented the message of his artworks, instead winning him – and, by extension, the art world – new converts and fans. At the press conference accompanying the exhibition, Perry joked with the assembled journalists reluctant to kick off the Q&A: ‘Am I really that much of an open book?’ And yes, perhaps he is. But it does seem to have made him more popular than ever.

Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! is on display at the Serpentine Gallery until 10 September.

Your inbox deserves a little culture! Get our monthly newsletter