Grayson Perry

The current exhibition by Grayson Perry entitled Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery is one that I have already returned to several times and thought about a great deal. Perry has created fourteen pieces of art to reflect the people that he met while making a TV programme for the BBC which shares the exhibition’s title. The works include tapestry, pottery and silk along with other mediums and so there is a completely new experience with each piece. This is also encouraged by placing the objects alongside the gallery’s permanent collections. There is a feeling of being a treasure hunter as you follow Perry’s map to discover each new object, unsure of what it could be made of and how easily it might blend into the background of older paintings featuring established personalities. I am still tempted to drop in again as the layout ensures that it is easy to view a section or two without a huge time commitment.

Each object within the exhibition is accompanied by a small plaque which explained a little about the person who inspired it and why Perry represented them as he did. There are couples, fathers and celebrities involved as well as friends and soldiers. Perry acknowledges that the identities which he is attempting to reproduce in three dimensional forms are multifaceted and can change due to circumstances such as hardship, illness or necessity. The description alongside his pot for Chris Huhne, the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP, explained that Perry had smashed the carefully patterned pot before reassembling it using gold, an ancient Chinese technique. He felt that the recent destructive events had actually improved Huhne’s identity by forcing a greater degree of individuality into his life therefore making it easier to now sympathise with him. The pot was indeed enhanced by the addition of gold and I thought this was an interesting interpretation of such a well known public drama. However, I would be interested to see what Huhne himself has to say about this representation of his life.

This is the first exhibition by Grayson Perry which I have had the chance to go to and I was excited to see his work, due to already knowing so much about his public persona. However, I quickly realised that although his transvestite alter ego Clare has become as famous as him this became immaterial when facing the artwork. It is clear from the exhibition that Perry enjoys producing art through a variety of media and his choice of crazy and exuberant dresses are another method for him to demonstrate how porous the art world can be. He asks in Playing to the Gallery (more on this later) whether it is not possible to be both loved by the public and a serious artist and Perry’s numerous television and public appearances are encouraging these boundaries to blur.

One of my favourite pieces was The Ashford Hijab, a beautiful silk hijab scarf which also depicted the life of a white girl in Ashford who had converted to Islam and was now married with children. Perry explores why the religion might have attracted her and why she chooses to wear the hijab, something which Western cultures often cannot understand. In the scarf she turns her back on the constant demands of a Western consumerist society and instead reaches out for the solidarity and sisterhood provided by other Muslim women. A sense of community emerges which cannot be matched by the culture she has left behind. I found it fascinating that Perry could present such a sympathetic portrayal on what is a very controversial topic and also create a very beautiful, and possibly useful, object.

Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery provides an insider’s viewpoint on the art world to explain the decisions and conversations that happen behind closed doors. Alongside Perry’s engaging prose are also many amusing drawings which refuse to allow the art world to be too serious and question some of the established assumptions. I found it an easy and enjoyable read that nevertheless challenged my automatic construction of what constitutes art. Perry believes that anything can be art but that does not mean that everything should be called art. While I disagree with some of the reasoning he gave behind this I would argue that it is important to be able to keep art distinct so that it can be critiqued differently from objects which are meant for more commonplace uses. I would definitely recommend the book both for those who are well versed in the art world and for complete newcomers as I think it will provide valuable points of view for all in its assessment of how the worth of art is valued and how it is accepted into society.

If you want some further thoughts on the exhibition check out this blog by Emily, who I went with and who gave me Playing to the Gallery, here. Otherwise you have until 15th March 2015 to go to the National Potrait Gallery as many times as you like – it’s free and easy to dip into.


Constable: The Making of a Master

Through out the V&A’s most recent exhibition on John Constable the artist’s attention to detail is apparent. His progress is charted from initial copied etching to the large projects which required confidence and careful skill. Although he is famed for his paintings of ethereal clouds I was also impressed by overall feeling of movement present through out his paintings.

Constable painted the scenes which surrounded him. His paintings capture both scenes which appear to only exist in that moment and views which will remain eternal. I went to the exhibition with a friend who knows the areas of Suffolk and Essex which Constable lived in well. She could recognise bends in a river of his landscapes and church steeples which poked through trees. This familiarity allowed the views to seem fresh even when they included hay wains and working mills.

There were several instances where multiple versions of a painting were exhibited side by side. This was fascinating as it uncovered the development of Constable’s vision for each creation. The Hay Wain slowly included a playful dog, a boy drinking from the river in a red waistcoat and a rainbow as Constable neatened up the picture and assessed what was still visually needed. The addition of the dash of red balances the picture and draws the viewer to the boy’s playful face. In another picture a white horse which is introduced into a stormy landscape provides a contrast to the dark clouds overhead.

At times the exhibition felt repetitive as it hung such similar paintings side by side. This feeling was particularly strong during the rooms which included comparisons of etchings and Constable’s attempts to copy them. Sadly, the main difference at this point which could be noticed were to Constable’s detriment as he is still learning his strengths and the techniques necessary.
However, my frustration with the repetition of images was softened at the end of the exhibition when three paintings of similar tree trunks were hung side by side. One was an original image by a Dutch master which had inspired Constable’s own work. This painting in turn led Lucien Freud’s study on a tree trunk, entitled ‘After Constable’s Elm’, which was the third painting hanging. This thread drawing together centuries of artists through such a simple theme demonstrated that sometimes imitation can be more than just the height of flattery.

With such variety provided by paintings of ominous dark clouds, cheerful rustic scenes and vibrant city scenes I very much enjoyed this exhibition, although I feel as if I learnt more about the process of training to be an artist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than about Constable himself. However, I am now planning to see the exhibition on his rival Turner at the Tate!

The exhibition continues until 11 January 2015.

Disobedient Objects

The recently opened Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A is based around the idea of design being used to convert every day objects into items of protest. This ranged from hastily made gas masks, banners and placards to an intricately decorated car, subversive dwarf hats and tapestries. They incorporated protests from across the world and illustrated the necessity of invention.

The exhibition also included a series of videos, featuring protests past and present, which I felt brought many of the objects to life. They demonstrated the practical demands which the carefully curated artefacts were subjected to when used as intended. In fact, the exhibition ended by stating that many of the objects would return to use after their time at the V&A.

Badges against Apartheid rub shoulders with faked newspapers and revolutionary appliqué. The outfits of the Guerrilla Girls stand beneath a glittery unicorn banner fighting transphobia. The scope of the exhibition demonstrates that while there are many issues that have been solved through protest, many remain to be fought.

The one complaint I have against the exhibition is that it tries to show too much in such a small space. There is not a clear route around the exhibits so it was often crowded without need. These crowds build up further when people attempt to watch the main video being streamed as there is not much space to watch it without blocking other exhibits. Nevertheless, the exhibition is free and I appreciate the limitations of the gallery available.

These clever book shields turn the violence of those being fought against them. Originally from student protests in Rome against funding cuts they created a tableau of police beating down literature and knowledge when pictures were published in newspapers. The idea has quickly spread across the world.

My personal favourite of the exhibition was the video they featured on the Barbie Liberation Organisation. In 1991 speaking Barbies and G.I. Joes had their voice boxes swapped before being replaced in their boxes at the stores. When customers bought these revamped toys they were surprised to find Barbie’s sentiments changed.
The simplicity of the idea and the unusual approach really demonstrates the arbitrariness of boundaries which have slowly been created and accepted.

The exhibition is completely free and will continue until 1st February 2015 so there’s plenty of time to visit as often as you like!

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

The Sheaf

Yesterday I went to see the much raved about Matisse exhibition at the Tate Modern with a friend. As it was a Saturday afternoon the gallery was full of a range of people; from those who took themselves very seriously to Italian mothers intently attempting to give their five-year-old children art history lessons to us, two fairly relaxed punters.

Despite the crush the exhibition was very enjoyable and almost therapeutic. It charts Matisse’s growing confidence in this new art form and his various experiments with what it could achieve. The opening rooms focus on the physicality of each work, which Matisse believed could not be reproduced in prints, through videos of the artist working and a comparison of the works and subsequent reproductions. As the exhibition progressed the cut-outs grew larger so that they eventually covered huge walls. In his own home Matisse began to cover all the walls so that paper tendrils would stir in the breeze, creating an almost living wallpaper.

Although the colours of the cut-outs were vibrant they were not garish or overwhelming. Instead the simplicity of each shade made it more important to focus on the shape that had been created – both with the paper and with the remaining white space. The series of Blue Nudes demonstrated this as each clearly suggested the human form using only two colours.

Blue Nude (II)

The exhibition is on until 7th September and I would definitely recommend it as it’s not often the opportunity  arises to appreciate artistic excellence with paper and glue.