Last week I took a trip along the coast to marvellous Margate to the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery to have a look at the Grayson Perry retrospective “Provincial Punk”. It should be stated at the outset that Perry himself is keen to stress that this exhibition is not really a retrospective as that implies he is dead or has stopped working, which he clearly isn’t and hasn’t. What it is really, is a timeline in artifacts of his artistic output from graduation from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 with a degree in Fine Art up until his most recent and controversial piece – the House for Julie in collaboration with FAT Architecture and constructed in Wrabness, Essex.
So now we have that straight, what was it all about? The first large room is full of Perry Pots. Large, covered in graffiti style imagery and slogans lampooning the Middle Class. Most of these post are from the 80’s and 90’s when the “loadsamoney” culture was at its height, Perry adeptly highlights themes of greed and excess in the race to reach the top of the greasy pole prevalent at that time. Sex and religion also make an appearance, nothing is off-limits for this angry young man. While appearing highly decorative, much of the artwork is quite brutal, but that of course is what makes Perry so successful.
Moving into another room there are more pots, sketch books and a couple of “art films” from his student and early post-grad days. Personally I loathe these kind of “art films”. They are always so full of angst and menace and so very earnest, trying so hard to be… something, but what? They are often also accompanied by a dire soundtrack of odd sounds or heavy breathing. My own feeling is that if you want to make films, study film making and do it properly!
The final room contains the Walthamstow Tapestry, all four sections of it. This is the one which was created as part of the Channel 4 documentary series Who Are You? It is an interesting piece, overloaded with imagery and text about life in modern Britain as seen through Perry’s eyes. What I found interesting is how he seems to have switched from lampooning of the middle classes to targeting the working class. There is much about “chav culture” and what is considered by most to be “poor taste” in these works. Is this because like it or not, Perry himself has crossed the class divide and become the embodiment of the middle class? He is after all, a white, middle-aged, male, degree educated and has achieved success in his chosen profession as an artist and social anthropologist. Even his penchant for cross-dressing is something more identifiable with middle and upper classes than with the working class. (OK, we’ve all seen Billy Elliott, but that’s not really the norm!)
I find Perry to be an interesting artist. He has much to say and is clearly a very skilled craftsman, knowing his chosen medium – ceramics well and constantly pushing the boundaries in the making of his work. I am a bit worried about his outward championing of hand skills and craftsmanship when it comes to his tapestries. I don’t have a problem that he draws using an iPad, we should all embrace technology. My issue is that he goes to Belgium and has these woven digitally by machine. WHY!!!!!!! There are some fantastic artisan weavers in the UK, people who are at the very highest level possible in tapestry weaving by hand. In fact West Dean college in West Sussex is active in weaving the most stunning contemporary pieces by some of the best weavers in the world. Surely Perry could have had his pieces made there, it would be a fitting marriage of the traditional and contemporary.
The exhibition professes to “help us to assess culture, identity, class and the role of the artist and craftsperson from then (1980’s) until now.” On one level I think it does do this, but on another I think it is really just an excuse to poke fun at different elements of society. Perry is quoted in the gallery brochure as saying ” The idea of ‘Provincial Punk’ is an oxymoron but it encapsulates creatively some sort of spirit in my work that still goes on to this day. It is a very creative force, a willingness to turn things over, to not accept the fashion and to have a bit of fun. It is a kind of teasing rebellion; it is not a violent revolution.” I would broadly agree with that, but there are some areas which cross the line and are simply just that little bit spiteful. But I guess Perry can get away with it, after all he is an Artist and National Treasure.
Definitely worth a visit, you don’t need to be an art fan either; although I would say you need to be open and broad-minded. Probably also not really one for younger children. Provincial Punk is at the Turner Contemporary Gallery. Margate until 13 September. Admission is free.
The Gift Shop selling Perry paraphernalia
There is a cafe on site, it’s OK but not great but the views are fabulous!
cafe at the Turner Contemporary
Big Sky outside the Turner Contemporary Gallery Margate