Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review: Grayson Perry, The Vanity of Small Differences

This weekend I went to see the The Vanity Of Small Differences, the exhibition of Grayson Perry tapestries currently at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. I expected the artwork produced as part of the Channel 4 shows about class that aired a few years back, but this is a different series: six tapestries inspired by and including some of those characters, turned into a wholly fictional piece with one narrative running through it.
Photo (c) Stephen White
The tapestries follow the life of Tim Rakewell, a working class lad born in Sunderland. The tapestries follow, in a loose way, the Rake's Progress. Tim is born in the wreckage of industrial working class life, escapes it by being a geek, marries a posh bird, becomes a software millionaire, and moves to the Cotswolds. They are all about class: in the first, his resolutely working class mother sits in her gran's house, surrounded by the knick-knacks and photographs of a vanished way of life. In the second, his aspirational stepfather aims to move to a new housing estate. In the third, Tim is cast out from home, and welcomed to the middle-classes, in the shape of his posh girlfriend's family. In the fourth, we see them living the prosperous aspirational life, surrounded by brand names that signal their status. In the fifth, they look down on their neighbour, a member of the old rich, in the shape of a stag being pulled down by hounds. In the background, an Occupy protest lurks outside Tim's front gate.

A little voiceover from one of the participants in the scene appears on the explanations. They are also sewn into the tapestries, along with a few other words. This is one of the reasons you will happily stand for ten minutes in front of each piece. There's so much to pick out, every space filled with detail and interest, from the 70s swirls of the nana's carpet to the endless upmarket logos - Aga, Le Creuset, Cath Kidston etc - that fill Tim's home. The colours are also wonderful, scorchingly bright and yet not unsubtle.
Photo (c) Stephen White
Contemporary artists are often accused of having nothing to say, but Perry manages to turn a warped reflection on modern Britain in a way that is simultaneously merciless and yet oddly compassionate. Every bit of the scenes he portrays is recognisable, from the post industrial decay to the tinny Barrett homes; the celebrity worshipping; the Guardian readers with their posh olive oil; the upmarket tat that signifies success; the lurking discontent in the shires. The last tapestry is particularly poignant: a car crash outside a retail park in some nameless town. All the crappiness, the ugliness and worship of money summed up in one beautifully rendered piece. And yet, your response to all this is not to hate the participants but to recognise them, at the same time gritting your teeth and squirming with embarrassment at the awkwardness of it all.

I've only previously seen Perry's stuff on the TV, and although I'd liked it, it'd no way prepared me for this: the scale, the detail, and the emotional impact. It was also a great deal more political than I expected, and really doesn't portray a nation at ease with itself. He offers no solutions or easy answers, only offers up what's already there, and says, 'look, here we are.' If the response makes your skin crawl, then that's because it's real, and not because it's art. Sometimes art really is about pointing out what's real, rather than creating something that's not. I think Grayson Perry is a genius, and would put money on it that people will be looking at these tapestries long after Hirst, Emin et al have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

My only complaint, if I have one - as someone who is interested in textiles - is that there was very little info on the technical process of making the tapestries, which I'd have like to have known more about. Apart from that: GO SEE IT. IT'S AMAZING.

The Vanity of Small Differences is on at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath until the 10th April. It's £4 to get in. I'm fairly sure this exhibition is going to a few places so if you're not in the South-West keep an eye on where it might turn up next.

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