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What’s Behind a Name? Insight into Grayson Perry’s ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’

This summer, one of the most famous British artists Grayson Perry is presenting his new work in London, UK. The free exhibition is being held at Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery until 10 September 2017. I personally come from a country where artists are imprisoned for their critical thinking (Pussy Riot were arrested in Russia again just three days ago), so I want to uncover more about this creative talent who is mostly known for challenging contemporary English society on sensitive, and sometimes, political matters.

The name of the exhibition is intriguing in itself. ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’ , what does this even mean? What tone does it set for the show? Let me take you on a literary tour through Perry’s new exciting exhibition.

As we enter, it’s evident that Grayson Perry’s subject matter is drawn from his own life being both a transvestite and a husband, as well as wider social issues like class, politics, and sex. He makes many references to his childhood, family and transvestite alter ego Claire, which are carefully nestled amongst deeper questions surrounding décor and decorum, class and taste. England’s past and current state of flux obviously concern him, with the revelation of Brexit making a substantial appearance in his latest work. But what is truly wonderful is that Perry isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, and is keen to challenge the ‘seriousness’ and exclusivity of art. He wants to have fun. He dares the audience to laugh harder. I think if his artwork could speak, it would say this; “I want to make contemporary art understandable”. This conscious effort to bring contemporary art into the mainstream popular culture led me wonder; is it necessarily a bad thing to deprive art of its elitism?

In the main wing of the gallery, you are literally exposed to a 5-feet wide tapestry. In the colossal self-portrait, the artist appears nude surrounded by various personal subjects. There are almost no words, but then it strikes, and it feels like a relief. Speaking about the piece, Perry said:

“This is me, both as artist and model in my studio. I wanted to make something in the tradition of the reclining nude. Reclining Artist is both an idealized fantasy and also the messy reality. It is perhaps me expressing my desire to be a sex object and also show off my cultural capital and boyish paraphernalia. Alan Measles – my teddy bear and metaphor for masculinity and God – appears as a sculpture, as an inflatable, and on a dress hanging on the wall. The cat is called Kevin.”

Grayson Perry is famous for his creative ability to combine delicately crafted objects with scenes of contemporary life. The Brexit pots Matching Pairas heralded on television, are the centerpiece of the Serpentine show. The two glazed ceramic vases seem very much alike – alluring and delicate – but take a closer look and you will see the difference and the message. Matching Pair comprises two pots, one featuring images and choices of people that voted to leave in the EU referendum, the other featuring images and choices of those that voted to remain. The Leave pot has Big Ben, Winston Churchill and Nigel Farage to the power of 10, plus ketchup and poor old David Bowie. The Remain pot has kissing couples, art museums, the artist’s wife and Shakespeare. Perry solicited representative images from both camps via social media; Marmite was one of many common factors along with the NHS, the BBC and blue. What impact will Brexit have? It is hard to know now, but the point he makes is clear; we cannot judge the voters. It is not a black and white matter. Looking at the beautiful vases, you can’t help but think; maybe Leavers and Remainers share much more in common, than they assume? Maybe they are also united by old British values? A ceramic Thought for Today.

Another very strong piece is a 10-foot wide tapestry called Battle of Britain. It shows contemporary urban landscape featuring all the recognisable symbols of our everyday life in the city. But where is the nation going? What is the state of the country?  Perry is worried about the UK’s crawling turbulence; this tapestry is a commonplace drama of modern life.

Perry with his wife and daughter, Flo, after winning the Turner prize in 2003

He comments: “I started this work with the innocuous desire to make a large landscape tapestry. I have always enjoyed the in-between places or ‘edgelands’ as they have become fashionably known. The imaginary place I have depicted is not unlike the landscape of Essex where I lived as a young child. The layered quality of the image harks back to some of my earliest sketchbook paintings made whilst at art college. I was about half way through making this work when I realized I was unconsciously drawing a transcription of one of my favourite paintings, Battle of Britain by Paul Nash. Having yet again acknowledged the power of the unconscious I continued with the work, playing up the associations and weaving in references to the current conflicts within our society.”

Perry depicts the issues of contemporary life on traditional artistic mediums, such as rugs and tapestry, signifying a tautological relationship between the past and present. The outdated and the fashionable. The artist and the artisan. Can art be functional? Does it have a place in popular society? Grayson definitely things so.

Going back to the title of Perry’s exhibition, it’s meant to challenge the concept of popularity; is this populist art, is this the people’s art, what makes art shows popular? He says: “When I came up with this title The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, I liked it because it chimed with one of my ongoing ambitions: to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down. Mainly I liked it because it made me giggle, but popularity is a serious business. Ask any politician.”

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