Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences
Bristol Museum until 24 June 2018
The six tapestries that make up the exhibition currently in Bristol have been touring the country for some years, since the 2012 Channel 4 series on taste that inspired them. I was converted to Grayson Perry’s art by an exhibition at the Arnolfini, here in Bristol, last autumn. A variety of Perry’s stuff was on display – his pink motorbike (with travelling shrine for Alan Measles, the teddy bear); his bike (hanging in the stairwell); various big fired pots exploring Brexit, fame, masculinity, etc.; and a Kate-Middleton-brass-rubbing-themed skateboard (‘kateboard’). The exhibition was entitled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! and it was totally, unreservedly populist. I watched children under ten talking among themselves about how to interpret certain works. I heard the most unlikely people getting interested in the wide-open images and ideas – the significance of the internal physiology of a giant bear (personifying the financial system), or the collected detritus of lost empire around a steel skull (skeletal Great Britain). Grayson Perry, with his eye-shadow and big dresses and opinions, is a great ambassador for art.
Then there were the tapestries: big, colourful, computer-woven tapestries, incredibly detailed, textured, inviting, intriguing. My favourite piece from the Arnolfini exhibition was an enormous (3m x 7m) tapestry called Battle of Britain 2017, a portrait of modern Britain inspired by a Paul Nash painting. Perry manages to capture the mood of a south-east English rural-industrial landscape in winter; it is bleak but pulsing with life, drama and hope: a young man on a BMX looks out over a blighted landscape that is blessed (ironically?) with a rainbow. Despite looking at it closely on each of my visits, it was only during my fourth that my niece pointed out the dead body.
The six tapestries of the Vanity tour are smaller – 2m x 4m. They make up a series, inspired by Hogarth’s prints of The Rake’s Progress (reproductions of which, along with David Hockney’s series on the same theme, hang nearby). But whereas Hogarth’s Rake comes into his inheritance and spends it on gin and women, and Hockney’s art student discovers homosexual liberation in New York, Perry’s Tim Rakewell is a clever kid who makes good, crossing class boundaries, making a fortune – but finally dying in a car crash. That’s the apparent narrative, anyway, the meaning of which is quite hard to fathom, and not exactly ‘moralising’ in the way Hogarth’s prints are. But that’s part of what I like about Perry’s work: the way it takes you into myriad associations, without an Apollonian intention. It’s more like life: ambiguous, detailed, unpredictable, but recognisably about something, though the something never stays still.
The first tapestry is called The Adoration of the Cage Fighters. Two battered old male survivors present Tim, dandled by his blond-haired young mother, with a football kit and a miner’s lamp. Women neighbours watch and smoke. A photo of a man on a motorbike might be Tim’s absent father. The living-room is full of the kind of kitsch found in many working-class homes. Perry reflects simultaneously on class, masculinity, community, heartbreak and hope. The thematic elements are each familiar, but brought together they create the particular drama of the fictional Tim Rakewell.
And on it goes. In the second tapestry, The Agony in the Car Park, Tim’s step-father sings like Elvis, as if to a Saturday crowd in a working-class social club. Tim and his mother cringe at his feet. Outside club buildings, young people pimp their motors. An older man stands proud outside his pigeon loft. The shipyards are desolate and the sea is full of doom.
In my personal favourite, The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, student Tim and his middle-class girlfriend leave the empty achievements of Tim’s upwardly mobile mum and stepfather, incongruously represented as dwelling in rainbowed Eden, to enter the confident, articulate world of the girlfriend’s Tonbridge parents, whose books and music and ethnic giftware show off their outward-looking attitudes. I could relate to certain themes in that image.
That, of course, is part of Perry’s attraction – that most people can directly relate to his works, in one way of another, and thus they can feel part of Perry’s intelligent reflections on life. But then again Perry’s pots and scultures and tapestries are all very much about the narrative surface of things. They are popular because they are all celebrations and questionings of consensus social reality. So then I start wondering about a Buddhist critique of Grayson Perry: his work is all surface, an art-party, a play of tattoos on the skin of the world, with neither depth nor transcendence. It is a celebration of everything that the Buddha went forth from, and nowhere does it even question the world. From a Buddhist point of view, it might seem to be mere chatter; it is a machine-made entertainment distracting its viewers from the truly beautiful. Once one has started down this path of criticism, Perry’s work unravels. The titles of the tapestries each refer to famous themes from Christian art, but these are vacuous references, going nowhere. The various visual gestures that Perry makes within his images – the postures of the cage-fighters like those of the adoring Magi; the mirror-image in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal echoing Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding – are knowing and witty, but turn out to be mere echoes that die into the wilderness of reflections.
And then in meditation, pondering why I just liked these tapestries so much, I realised that it is their very rejection of depth and transcendence that is intriguing. Nowhere in Perry’s work is there any fantasy suggesting the possibility of successful escape from the social and quotidian. To enter his world, you have to own your class, gender, bias, skin and Britishness, and admit where you stand amid diversity. You start to feel the pullings on the surface of things, a surface knitted and knotted by time and family and class and whatever our own personal traumas have been. Since there is no hint of an elsewhere to escape to, you feel into the actuality of your being, the texture of what has made you.
But just as there is no transcendence, there is no depth either; no neurotic production of psychological narrative about why you feel so bad and why it went so wrong. Instead you have to stay woven into the big picture, at the frayed end of a never-ending process, tangled with everyone else everywhere in the world.
Tim Rakewell does well. Having made his fortune, he buys a big house, like George Harrison or Madonna, the kind of place which the old upper-classes can’t afford to run anymore. In The Upper Class at Bay, he looks like Mr Andrews in the Gainsborough painting, but his estate has been taken over by an Occupy camp, the young people protesting about inequality. Although most Buddhists will neither buy a stately home nor fight a class war, I can see that, for all that we seekers after awakening might disdain social class, there is no escaping social and historical processes. Converting to Buddhism is itself a theme in post-Christian post-youth-revolutionary western culture, and by learning to meditate you don’t forget your accent or your schooling. At best, you identify with it less, maybe, and learn a different kind of mobility.
The car crash ending is unexpected and disturbing. Tim seems to have had a middle-age crisis, got another, younger, wife (called Amber), but lost control of his car in some kind of male-ego situation on the road. Amber’s alive, but Tim died in the arms of the paramedics. His stretched-out form is pietà-like, but with his white underpants and bulging belly he is no saviour, just another corpse, made of the wastage of ambition and hubris. But Tim didn’t deserve this; nor does it look like it was his karma. It was just an accident, bad luck, on the back of some personal crisis.
Without depth or transcendence, there’s neither meaning in nor explanation of Tim’s demise. You can’t work out if you were supposed to feel anything, though the crash-gore was horrible and shocked you. What did Perry mean to communicate? My gaze fell on the nurse, in whose arms Tim has died. She has not tried to escape her fate, but gives herself to her work. Likewise, the green-clad paramedics, with their machines, attending with patience and professionalism. On the tangled surface of things, among the snapped threads, there are points of relaxed tension, patches of smoothness and order, whose meaning is found only in relation to everything else. So one might imagine the bodhisattva, taking her place in the weave, not identifying with some small part of it, but working to manifest whatever beauty might be possible.
The Vanity of Small Differences is in Bristol Museum until 24 June 2018, before going to Scunthorpe 7 July–8 September, and then Blackpool 27 September–15 December.