Within an attic located up a steep flight of stairs, Elgreen and Dragset have made a faithful impression of a hayloft with tools hanging along the wall such as a harness, rake and scythe. From a distance the timber structure of this imaginary barn spells out ‘kunst’, connecting the artifice of a working farm to art and the imagination. This blurring of boundaries sets up an entertaining enquiry into the realm of fantasy and expectation. On an opposing low wall the model of a boy sits looking down to the gallery below with his back to the tableau, while a resin vulture perches overhead. This menacing creature is named the ‘critic’ as a well-aimed barb at the expense of the media.
A darker theme is introduced by a miniature house placed on a rocking chair, titled ‘Home is the Place You Left. The reassuring environment of a farm with all its associations of nurture, fertility and abundance gradually acquires a gothic character arising out of these parodic props. This uncanny set first establishes reassurance, and then undermines the apparent rural charm. Above a barn door, a stag’s antlers sprout from a head that is less skeletal than resiliently fleshy. An empty birdbox asserts the absence of life itself.
Continuing the Harvest theme below on the ground floor, the artists exhibit a project that sources layers of wall paint stripped from museums with techniques developed to preserve frescoes. Attached to framed canvasses, these fragments have been diligently removed from sites in Europe and the US and assume the monochromatic insistence of Minimalist painting. Tones range from bleached white to beige and textures vary from one ‘donor’ institution to the next. Their sizes are inconsistent as are the distances between each work, aping natural contrasts within public collections, and yet each banal surface of domestic paint shares formal origins and qualities.
Elgreen and Dragset’s hayloft introduces a nuanced psychic space of memory, discovery and potential trauma. The series of ‘paintings’ collected from and named after individual museums archly satirises Minimal seriality and institutional authority but this playfulness cannot compensate for a frustrating absence of enduring perceptual or conceptual weight.
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.