Review: Grayson Perry at Arnolfini

A proud artist who deserves to be proud. 

As soon as you walk into the first room of Arnolfini’s gallery space, it is undeniable whose work you are there to see. The swirling pinks, cartoonish political commentary and range of media could only be Grayson Perry. His satirical and colourful style is probably one of the most recognisable in contemporary art. 

Kenilworth AM1, 2010 

Perry’s latest exhibition ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’ is currently showing in this Bristol gallery. It displays some of his latest works, including his Brexit vases and other artworks that are very much of the moment. There’s Perry-fied Donald Trumps, Theresa Mays, and Angela Merkels.

One of Perry's Brexit pots, 2017

For people less familiar with his work, at first glance the art can seem garish and confusing. It is true that there are many layers of meaning and complex imagery, but if we attempt to see the world through Perry's eyes his meanings become clearer. He sees society as complicated, humorous and hypocritical, so it makes sense that his works are too. 

Perry shamelessly reflects on society's hypocricies
Perry loves the shock factor, and part of his shtick is simply to put something surprising in a traditional art gallery. This explains his large nude self portrait, where the bottom half is himself and the top half is his alter-ego Clare. Yet there are, of course, more complicated matters Perry wants to deal with. Underneath the Essex bravado he is still clearly an artist that wants his audiences to understand how much thought he has put into his pieces.

Visitors in front of Reclining Artist, 2017

A rather odd trait of the exhibition is that all of the labels (normally written by the curator) are simply Perry’s own quotes about his works. This, of course, leads to a general feeling of self-congratulating.  Of his naked portrait Perry writes ‘I hope the educated middle class will be able to understand my art historical references.’ On the label of another piece, Our Mother, he writes ‘She is one of the most popular works I have made.’ It seems a strange way to end a gallery label, but this piece is admittedly a spectacular comment on society, religion, and immigration, so can we really begrudge him this?

Our Mother, 2009

Although he is probably best known for his pottery, his tapestries are astonishing. The old art form that is usually associated with medieval wars is reborn with his reflection on our way of life. Red Carpet is a beautiful and critical look at British society with labels such as ‘US’ ‘THEM’ ‘FAITH COMMUNITY’ and ‘MILLENIALS.’ The subtle background weave is the perfect blend of tower blocks and car parks, however, it is made markedly less subtle by Perry drawing our attention to it in the label.

Red Carpet, 2017 

The final room is a cinema allowing us to watch his Channel 4 documentary ‘All Man’ which follows his research into masculinity, particularly with regards to communities in the North of England, where cage fighting is popular. It starts as a typical Perry programme with the self proclaimed ‘sissy’ chuckling about the lengths young men go to to prove their masculinity. Yet, it soon evolves into a really moving discussion about the extremely high suicide rates amongst young men under 40s, and why they feel unable to discuss their mental health. Perry also speaks to proud communities that were ripped apart with the closure of mines in the 80s. The programme finishes with Perry’s reveal of the artworks he has made about the men he met in the North. Within the programme Perry states he is worried his works will do the communities justice, but the pot and tapestry (on display in the first room at Arnolfini) are a perfect homage. They are touching, funny, clever, and strong. It will make you want to go back and reevaluate your first impressions of the works downstairs. 

Death of a Working Hero, 2017 

Perhaps Perry is an artist that is very proud of himself and his artworks. Perhaps his decision to write first-person labels was unusual. However, Perry is also an artist that manages to appeal to people from all walks of society in Britain. He creates stunning, thought-provoking works using a range of media. This is an artist who deserves to be proud of himself.

Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! is on at Arnolfini, Bristol until 24th December 2017 

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