Grayson Perry, Provencial Punk : A Reflection

Art & Culture

In recent years Tracy Emin has been the popular face of art in Margate. Her most famous work has been what you would expect from a self-proclaimed Thatcherite; self-obsessed and loved by Saatchi. It’s hard to see what value future generations will draw from Emin’s unmade bed, other than an object lesson in the disparity of taste; how one (wo)man's shit stained sheets is another’s very expensive cultural milestone.

Now Margate has received the patronage of another famous Southern artist of working class roots, with the Turner Contemporary holding an exclusive retrospective of Essex born rebel-turned-art-establishment-favourite, Grayson Perry. Perry knows all about the vagaries of taste, its use as a signifier of status formed the backbone of his 2012 TV series Grayson Perry; All In The Best Possible Taste and the Vanity of Small Differences tapestries that followed. Whilst none of those tapestries are on display in the Turner show, the themes of taste and class, alongside notions of identity, consumerism and nationalism run through his work like sediment.

The opening room of the exhibition has Perry’s most familiar work: his clay pots packed with intricacies of hand written slogans, scratchy depictions of celebrities and sex fantasies, and photos of catalogue banalities. He’s entirely unafraid of delivering ‘message’ art, and these earthenware products range from the funny (his faux FA cup decorated with all the things he hates about football is a particular- sorry for the pun- winner) to the vaguely cringey- I don’t know if the Good and Bad Taste vase is supposed to shock, but it’s juxtaposition of catalogue models with bondage porn, although technically well executed, comes across as a bit try-hard. 

Good and Bad Taste

Further in the exhibition picks up. Print for a Politician is a vast highlight, a subversive morality play where every moral code and quirk is given equal footing. It details endless enclaves of warring with groups, each different collective given some sort of title, from Catholics to couch-potatoes, male chauvinists to Minimialists, all bearing a dizzying array of weapons from the ages. It’s funny and sad, a reflection on the madness of labels and language, a comment on the way we partition ourselves and our enemies, and maybe even a call for some sort of unity.   

Detail from Print for a Politician

A few more turns in and you hit jackpot – Perry’s huge tapestries take up a wall each of the final room and are, to be blunt, fucking amazing. Massive, vivid blocks of colour and chaos, they detail Britain in all its mundanity and magic, tightly packed illustrations like tattoos scratched on a sea dog's back. There’s wit and love and sorrow running through the works, and they go a long way to explaining Perry’s popularity. He can present both the world of high art, and supposed 'low' culture without patronising, condemning or eulogising either, instead offering wry commentary that has time for the strengths and weaknesses of both. There is clear meaning and beauty in his works – he’s been open about his debt to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progess and it's unashamed attempt to engage with life, and so Perry too tries to make some sense of modern Britain. He’s not some class tourist masturbating over the habits of the poor, or a snob separating culture into the high and low divisions favoured by the likes of Boris Johnson, but instead an astute chronicler of the country, made all the more entertaining by possessing that peculiarly British sense of humour. He's at turns surreal, saucy, and self-deprecating.

Detail from Walthamstowe Tapestry

I can’t think of anywhere better than Margate for the exhibition. Having grown up down the road, I can attest that years ago the town was a place you’d get your head kicked in if you looked the wrong way at the wrong time. Now hordes of Hackney-ites are buying up the houses, searching for that ‘authentic’ seaside vibe. It’s a typically English collision of class, taste, money and commerce, and stepping out of the Turner, looking at the derelict grandeur of the beach front golden mile, now dotted with occasional bouji café’s gleaming like new gnashers in a knackered mouth, I felt the starngest sensation that I had passed from looking at one of Perry’s tapestries to walking into one.  

Grayson Perry: Provencial Punk runs at the Turner Contemporary until September 13th, free entry. More details here