This social commentary will have you in stitches

‘Grayson Perry: Small Differences’ at the Pera Museum

By Victoria Khroundina | June 18, 2015


Bravo, Pera Museum. An exhibition of the powerhouse contemporary artist and 2003 Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry in Turkey is long overdue. But Perry fans, the wait is over. The Pera Museum has staged a thoughtful, eclectic and thoroughly fun exhibition that is a pleasure for contemporary art junkies and novices alike (I took a friend who was not familiar with Perry and he was really impressed).

Organised in collaboration with the British Council and curated by Linsey Young from the council’s Visual Arts Team, the exhibition comprises tapestries, ceramics and prints which aim to reflect the ‘playfully provocative’ artist’s fascination with issues of class and consumerism, religion, and ideas around belief and identity. ‘I don’t go hunting for exotic extremes. I’m always fascinated by things that are happening… right in front of us, often in an unconscious way,’ says Perry. ‘I’m interested in class and identity because they form our internal landscapes and affect all of our choices. When people say they “like” something, what do they mean? How did that develop?’

‘What Things Say About Us’, 2002, glazed ceramic, 56.5 x 35 cm, Collection Leeds Museum and Galleries

Thirteen works, alongside the series, The Vanity of Small Differences, focus on the artist’s mature practice. The earliest work is a ceramic pot from 2002 (above), the most recent a self-portrait of sorts, ‘A Map of Days’, completed in 2014 for a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Born in Essex in 1960, Perry studied fine art at the University of Portsmouth. After graduation, he moved to London with a group of close friends and collaborators and, after being rejected by the Chelsea School of Art, he began an evening class in pottery. ‘He found a medium that was at once terribly unpopular and cheap and that allowed him to explore subversive ideas and themes within a traditional context,’ says Young. Perry continued to make pottery alongside attending London’s nightclubs and participating in performance work, ‘the imagery from which fuelled an ever more experimental relationship with this most traditional of crafts,’ Young continues. In the mid-1990s he joined the prestigious Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, before moving to Victoria Miro, where he remains today.

‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’, 2012, wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm, British Council Collection and Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. Image courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

The entire fourth floor of the museum is devoted to Perry’s incredible series of six tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences – and they are so grand, it’s only fair to begin with them. Each tapestry measures two metres high by four metres wide, and were inspired by William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress paintings from the 18th century, as well as Perry’s BAFTA-winning Channel 4 series, All in the Best Possible Taste and Grayson Perry: Who Are You? Screens play the films at the exhibition, but if you want to see them on the big screen, they are also being screened as part of the concurrent film programme, My Way: Gender and Identity in British Cinema (until June 28).

‘The Agony in the Car Park’, 2012, wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm, British Council Collection and Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. Image courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

Hogarth’s 1735 series shows the journey of a life through the class system. ‘Hogarth is that most British of artists. There’s something dumpy, grumpy, but also morally strong about his work,’ says Perry. ‘He hasn’t got the shifty elegance of a European sensibility. He has a down-to-earth, ‘meat-and-two-veg’ sensibility, and a love of common humanity that feels to me very English. His figures are never the most exquisite; they’re always stumpy, a bit Hobbity.’

‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’, 2012, wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm, British Council Collection and Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. Image courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

Perry borrows not only these elements from Hogarth’s series, but also the central character’s name, Rakewell. ‘My character goes through perhaps a smoother trajectory of life than Hogarth’s does, though his life also ends badly, and he gets his comeuppance,’ says Perry.

‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’, 2012, wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm, British Council Collection and Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. Image courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

In the first tapestry, Tim Rakewell (in Hogarth’s series, the Christian name is Tom) is born to an unmarried young woman in Sunderland, in the northeast of England. In the second tapestry, his mother gets married and Tim doesn’t get on well with his new stepfather. Tim is bright and goes on to grammar school. In tapestry three, Tim is at university and his parents think he’s become a snob. Soon he gets a middle-class girlfriend, whom he eventually marries. By tapestry four, he has blossomed from university student to tech millionaire. In tapestry five, he’s semi-retired, living in a mansion in the English countryside, with his wife, whom he later divorces. In tapestry 6 he gets a slightly ‘blingy new wife and a Ferrari’, and meets his untimely death.

‘The Upper Class at Bay’, 2012 (detail), wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm, British Council Collection and Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. Image courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

‘I chose moments in the story that I thought would highlight questions of taste most clearly,’ says Perry. ‘Taste is most noticeably reflected in our lifestyle choices, and I wanted scenarios where I could visually show that.’

‘#Lamentation’, 2012, wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm, British Council Collection and Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. Image courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

What is particularly special about the series – besides the painstakingly detailed work that has gone into each one, the sophistication of the design and the imagination of the narrative, borrowed or not – is that each tapestry also reflects a religious painting from history, as another layer, giving the work the aura of a sort of didactic religious fresco cycle. There’s so much in each one that going into it here would result in a novel. I suggest spending a good amount of time on each one, reading the plaques and looking closely at all the detail. The social commentary is brilliant, and if you are familiar with English culture you’ll find yourself recognising and chuckling at much of what is depicted – from old-fashioned working-class women’s parlours to lower middle-class Barratt Homes estates, William Morris wallpaper and upper-middle-class dinner parties, Jamie Oliver portrayed as a god, and the final tapestry, titled #Lamentation, reflecting today’s obsession with social media.Witty, poignant and aesthetically pleasing, it is everything contemporary art should be. 

‘Map of Nowhere’, 2008, etching made from five plates printed on one sheet of 400 gsm Rives Vellin, 153 x 113 cm, British Council Collection, London, Image courtesy the artist, Paragon, Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria Miro, London

Other highlights include Perry’s maps – there are three on display. ‘Map of an Englishman’ (2004) is a kind of map of Perry’s mind; ‘Map of Nowhere’ (above) is based on the medieval mappa mundi; and ‘A Map of Days’ (2013) shows Perry’s interior world depicted as a walled city. The artist says these maps came out of psychotherapy: ‘One of the first things my therapist said to me was, “You’ve ceded control of lots of your interior landscape to your parents and you’ve got to get that territory back.”’. Perry also says he likes the authority of maps and what they say about gender. ‘I think of them as being very male. They have a history of being territorial, being about ownership, but also a sense of being empirically correct.’

‘The Existential Void’, 2012, glazed ceramic, 47.5 x 29.3 cm, private collection, London. Image courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

Perry’s ceramic pieces are perhaps the best examples of his ability to meld high and low culture. His pottery references the ceramics of Africa and Asia as well as that of the Islamic world. The pot ‘Existential Void’, for example, is based on the form of an early Islamic piece. ‘I’m not interested in coming up with original forms. Instead, I borrow shapes and forms from books,’ he says. While taking the shape of an ancient art practice, the way the pot is decorated is very modern. References from pop culture and advertising highlight the bombardment of images and messages we are faced with in the 21st century – driving us into an existential void.

‘Wise Alan’, 2007, glazed ceramic, 97 x 56 x 45 cm. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London. Image courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

The sculpture ‘Wise Alan’, meanwhile, is a large, hand-shaped ceramic based on a small bottle Perry found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Young draws parallels between this work and the depiction of two men embracing on a Kütahya pitcher from the collection on the museum’s first floor. ‘The pitcher, showing one man in the attire of a priest, the other wearing a turban, is a depiction of Turkey’s religious and secular tolerance, while Perry’s work is an Islamic representation of Alan Measles [his childhood teddy bear],’ Young says. The calm and meditative pose of the bear reflects Perry’s interest in the behaviours and demonstrations of faith. This work and the more provocative tapestry ‘Vote Alan Measles for God’ (also on show) show the ways in which the artist interrogates people’s belief systems.

Never having shown his work in Turkey before, Perry says he is excited to exhibit at the Pera Museum. ‘Turkey is a country that has such a rich and alive traditional culture compared to Britain. I piggyback a lot of my work on an amalgamation of various local cultures from around the globe. I suppose that in itself is a reflection of Britain, which is a mongrel nation, and particularly London, which has such a huge mix of cultures,’ he says. 

‘I’ve always tried to deliver a rich, dense kind of work. I don’t make soufflés of elegance. My work is slow and laboured, and I want people to feel the man-hours that have been involved. I think the days and days it takes to make a work are important, and often underrated. I hope the audience in Istanbul feels that, and responds positively to the work.’ And at that, Grayson Perry, you have definitely succeeded.

This not-to-be-missed exhibition continues until July 26. The catalogue is now available from the Cornucopia store.

The main image shows detail from ‘The Walthamstow Tapestry’ (photograph: Linda Nylind).

Posted in Contemporary Art, Exhibitions, Museums
More Reading
Good places to stay
Current Events