Titled ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’, Grayson Perry’s show at the Serpentine explores the nature of British identity and its tribes. As an artist working primarily in ceramics, Perry has built two pots that illustrate a group of ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ from the 2016 EU referendum which he made for a Channel 4 documentary called ‘Divided Britain’. The show also displays tapestries, banners, a bronze head and a ‘shrine’ commemorating Perry’s marriage. Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003, Britain’s most important Contemporary Art award. He is also a television presenter, making programmes about art and British life. Twitter: @theartchannel1
Employing the model of Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’, Grayson Perry presents a satirical morality tale of contemporary British life in The ‘Vanity of Small Differences’, a suite of six tapestries, measuring 200 by 400 in editions of six each. Designed using computer software, but made on traditional weaving looms in Spain, they form a remarkable new achievement for an artist affiliated to methods traditional craftsmanship and social satire as subject. The exhibition introduces several new pots made in his characteristic overlay of textural commentary and witty, graffiti-style illustrations, but the stars of this show are these exuberant and comic observations of British class and aspiration. These excavations of caste and class are stitched together from wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk, a deliberate blending of luxury materials with the synthetic.
The six tapestries illustrate the life and tragic demise of a brilliant software designer, Tim Rakewell, born into working class life who uses his talent to build a fortune but whose success leads to a tragically early death when driving his luxury car too fast on a grimy city street. Perry returns to the allegorical model of the tapestry because it lends itself even more so than painting to storytelling, particularly caricature. Weaving cannot produce the hyper-real illusion of the brushstroke. Instead, the tapestry is an ideal form for instruction and a cartoon-like summation.
Perry has a deft understanding of Britain’s anxieties about wealth and status often expressed in feelings of envy, hostility and distrust. ‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’ illustrates the protagonist’s final rupture with the family home as he moves towards bourgeois life with his middle-class girlfriend. All of the cultural chasms and subtleties of class distinction are laid bare. In the penultimate tapestry, Tim, is shown, hunting the upper class, personified by a stag being torn apart by hounds, which becomes a symbol for historical cycles of new money overtaking old.
‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ is a formally brilliant rendering of modern life, in the style of a parable. Perry’s flair for comedy produces an entertaining romp resembling a theatrical farce while still managing to create a persuasive critique of contemporary materialism.