Thursday, July 25, 2013

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry explaining 'The Adoration of the Cage Fighters' (source)
I'm not sure how I could have lived in London for more than two years and not have become aware of Grayson Perry. He's so, well, noticeable. But for whatever reason, my first introduction to this Royal Academy artist was the display in Burlington House of his tapestry series 'The Vanity of Small Differences'. This is such a detailed and slightly overwhelming work that it's difficult to know where to start in introducing it to you - assuming you were as ignorant of Grayson Perry as I. You can read about the tapestries and see them on the Victoria Miro Gallery site.

Let's just say that the work chronicles the life of a fictional modern character - a kind of contemporary 'everyman' - named Tim Rakewell. His progress from birth to death deliberately references 'A Rake's Progress' (1732 -33) by William Hogarth, which in eight paintings tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a young man who inherits a fortune from his miserly father, spends it all on fashionable pursuits and gambling, marries for money, gambles away a second fortune, goes to debtors' prison and dies in a madhouse.

Perry's six tapestries have titles which make you think you've heard that before...what exactly is the reference...?

The tapestries on display (source)

'The Adoration of the Cage Fighters' you can figure out: the Adoration of the Magi... a baby is born...there's a Madonna-like figure...There's also a plethora of modern symbols and imagery, plus text, a riot of colours and detail that can keep you absorbed for ages.
Each of the six images, to a greater or lesser extent, pays homage to a religious work.  Including Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, Rogier Van de Weyden's Lamentation and three different paintings of The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli,  Grünewald and Robert Campin.   
The images also reference the pictorial display of wealth and status in The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck and Mr & Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough.  Woven into each tapestry are snatches of text, each one in the voice of a participant in the scene illustrated. 
Each image also features a small dog, reminiscent of Hogarth's beloved pug, Trump. (source)
'The Agony in the Car Park' moves along Tim's story, with Tim's stepfather as a club singer. Grayson is said to be interested in exploring questions of 'taste' -- we're hit with all kinds of almost strident images.

And so we move on to 'Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close', as Tim and his girlfriend leave home under the watchful eye of Jamie Oliver, 'the god of social mobility'. But have they been expelled from the Garden of Eden? The symbolism rages.

'The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal' - a pun for which Perry could thank Richard Branson, of course, sees Tim become an instant internet millionaire. 'The Upper Class at Bay' visualises the problems of new money, and old.

'Lamentation' shows us Tim's death in a car accident. The text reads:

'We were walking home from a night out, these two cars, racing each other, speed past. Middle aged men showing off, the red one lost control. The driver wasn't wearing a seatbelt. He didn't stand a chance. The female passenger was ok but catatonic with shock. I'm a nurse. I tried to save the man but he died in my arms. It was only afterwards that I found out he was that famous computer guy, Rakewell. All he said to me was "Mother". All that money and he dies in the gutter.'

If you ever get the chance to see these tapestries, grab it. There are so many things to say about them -- here's a few: the themes are cliches and are cliched, and that's the point. Visually they are so riotous, in-your-face and absorbing that you can be swallowed up for hours; they are about taste and they are tasteless too. The references back to religious works is cerebral and clever and merits close pondering. The Hogarth reference - he who had such a sharp eye for his own day and age - is not misplaced. Go see them.

And meanwhile, there's Grayson Perry...Royal Academician, 2003 Turner Art Prize winner, ceramic artist, cross-dressing transvestite, TV show host ('All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry', 2010) and examiner of English taste. Well, who better? Wiki page here.


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