I must admit, I’ve never been much of a fan of Grayson Perry, despite knowing little of his work – as a media darling and ardent self-publicist, he rather got my back up from the point of his Turner Prize win. I was only vaguely aware that he had a new show. But finding myself by chance in the Serpentine Gallery on the opening day of the new exhibition (I’d actually popped in to use the toilet and somehow bypassed the queues that saw a one-out, one-in policy in action), I thought I’d give the show a go. And I’m glad I did, as this is a fairly impressive – though not, perhaps, as impressive as the artist might want us to think – collection of woodcuts, tapestries, sculptures and vases that reflect a politically fractured Britain with a degree of cynicism and mockery (as reflected in the knowing exhibition title, which I very much hope is the satire that the introductory text claims it to be). What better for election day, the culmination of a political campaign that has been at once lacklustre (from the politicians) and horribly vicious (from the supporters)?
The first thing you see on entering is a huge, wall-sized transgendered self-portrait, the artist naked and surrounded by his possessions and references to the lanscape of Britain. Eleswhere, there are huge pieces displaying a Broken Britain and a map made up of our cultural buzzwords, the populist phrases created and spread by the media. There are the Brexit pots – one for Remain, one for Leave, both decorated with symbols chosen by supporters of each. That both overlap in places should only come as a surprise to anyone who thinks that someone with a different political viewpoint from their own must be some sort of alien monster. Points of connection might prove to be important in the days to come, as demonised voters and those taking a self-declared moral high ground try to find some way of communicating.
Perry is a Corbynist – well, of course he is – and his political bias is clear while looking at the work. But luckily, it isn’t overwhelming. Nothing could be more boring than wall-to-wall propaganda, and the artist is also able to poke fun at the privileged liberals of the art world, the rich and successful ones who have, after all, made him very rich and successful too. And there are pot that are plastered with the gushing praise of critics, somehow rendering this praise ridiculous in the process. At least, that’s how I saw it – for all I know, the pot might be Grayson’s version of a DVD sleeve plastered with five stars and ‘best film ever’ posts from rent-a-quote bloggers, a desperate attempt to prove the quality of his work. It feels satirical though, and the fact that art critics, formerly gushing about his work, have apparently been rather sniffy about this exhibition suggests nerves struck, egos wounded. Good.
You can bypass the political if you like, and simply enjoy Grayson’s fabulously kitsch custom-made motorcycle and bike, or be dazzled by his folk horror flavoured fetish dolls and giant, Britannia-themed skulls. You can marvel at the rampant rush of colour and outrageous imagery. You can, as with all art, take it in whatever way you want. It’s definitely a politically charge and politically slanted show, but it’s not one that hits you over the head with a message it wants you to absorb. Perry, I suspect, is aware of both the absurdity of his carefully-crafted persona and the hypocrisy of very rich dilletantes claiming to be the voice of the underdog, and he carefully manages to exentuate the former while playing down the latter. This is a show that seems to want to heal division, not further it, and for that alone is admirable.
Serpentine Gallery, London 8th June – 10th September