This is Grayson Perry’s first solo show in some time: through it, he is hoping to provide social commentary on the state of the nation, divided by Brexit and struggling with its own self-definition. (The exhibition coincidentally opened on the day of the general election; entirely unplanned, this actually added extra, unwanted pressure to some of the works, which clearly couldn’t have been changed to reflect the snap election or its surprise outcome.) He also seeks to tackle modern masculinity and “the relationships between artist, gallery, critic and audience”. Nothing too serious, then.
The focus was a pair of pots in the central room: Matching Pair, one representing those who voted Leave and the other Remain, trying to show the similarities as much as the differences. An accompanying documentary for Channel 4 – now seemingly a mainstay for Perry’s projects – gave more background to the pieces: Twitter polls allowed the respective tribes to vote for the colour and decoration of the pot, with members of the public invited to submit imagery and portraits for inclusion. They ended up looking surprisingly similar, both blue and bedecked with Union Jacks and British heroes, although Remain celebrated Gandhi and Obama where Leave championed Churchill and, well, Farage.
"The abandoned baby, the 3 black crows, the hanging man – come from patterns in Japanese candlestick graphs used by traders" Grayson Perry pic.twitter.com/K45LlbhHc5— Serpentine Galleries (@SerpentineUK) July 25, 2017
Red Carpet and Battle of Britain both try to capture national tensions on large tapestries. The latter is surprisingly dour and muted for Perry, generally known for extravagant, vibrant pieces; a rainbow shines from the centre, arcing over a decaying estate and empty fields. UKIP, TEEN APATHY, CLASS WAR (with an anarchist A) are graffitied over fences and walls; a lone BMX rider surveys the scene, can of beer in hand. But where is the battle, between whom? There’s no opposition, no dichotomy, just decay. Red Carpet is perhaps more obvious, a warped map of the British Isles with buzzwords replacing cities: Postcode Lottery, Cheap Imports. Right to Buy, Neighbourhood Watch, Dogging Spot. London, labelled Them, the Liberal Elite, is encircled by the bubble of Gentrification.
One of the neighbouring rooms explores masculinity, putting the various artworks Perry created for his series ‘All Man’ on display. They’re split into three pairs, looking at gang culture, former mining communities, and the City, respectively. They’re nuanced in places and Shadow Boxing – which commemorates a cage fighter who committed suicide – is particularly touching; Object in Foreground is hardly subtle – it’s a large phallic pot echoing the Gherkin – but does its job well.
"[This] was inspired by the ceremony of the blessing of the banners in Durham Cathedral…" Grayson Perry https://t.co/P1l3f6dm3W pic.twitter.com/OM6uJNFlXU— Serpentine Galleries (@SerpentineUK) August 1, 2017
Elsewhere, Perry looks at his own reputation and oeuvre. Puff Piece, one of the first works as you enter, is emblazoned with alleged quotes from exhibition reviews: Stunning, I love it, A Must See, Sell Your House to Buy One. Any true self-deprecation felt lacking; there was no obvious criticality, as is the case with Luxury Brands for Social Justice. “Let them eat contemporary art,” it proclaims. “I’m off to buy a serious piece of political art.” Perry’s pots play into this world and this piece offered no perspective, no self-awareness. Maybe that’s the point: it’s inescapable.
"When I won the Turner Prize a journalist said to me 'Are you a loveable character or a serious artist?' I said, 'I'm both, deal with it." pic.twitter.com/TGH0dtZzvG— Serpentine Galleries (@SerpentineUK) August 3, 2017
A couple of works were entirely misjudged: Our Mother felt out of place and Outsider Alan seem to nod to non-western art but without any obvious citation or reference. Marriage Shrine and Perry’s custom motorcycle were both sweet, an insight into the artist’s interests and personal life, but required context that wasn’t given and felt physically out of place (both deserved to be outside). My favourite exhibit was his sketchbooks, tucked away in a corner, some recent but one dating from 1982: they give incredible insight into the artist’s mind and thought process, his development over the decades. But they showed me that I wanted more from the exhibition: a wider array of work, a more thorough retrospective, something that would demonstrate the true variety and versatility of one of Britain’s most prominent contemporary artists.
If you like Grayson Perry, go see this show. There’s nothing radical but the art is perfectly pleasant, occasionally pointed and critical, often very entertaining. He balances kitsch with fine art, self-reference (one pot sees Corbyn kissing his hand, Trump bowing to his teddy, Alan Measles) with grandiose sentiment. But if you’re unsure about the transvestite potter, this exhibition is unlikely going to help you make up your mind: it’s more of the same. And the Serpentine is small and it’s likely going to be very popular, so expect queues – but the most popular exhibition ever? Unlikely.