Following on from his superb show, Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen at the British Museum in 2010 is the latest collection of brilliantly insightful works by artist and craftsman Grayson Perry. This time fitting seamlessly into the collection of the National Portrait gallery, peppered throughout the museum therefore encouraging visitors on a kind of magical mystery your through the space, Perry’s new exhibition, Who are You? once again shows that Grayson Perry is one of the most intelligent artists of our times. Made in conjunction with a series of channel 4 documentaries reflecting on a series of individuals each struggling with some particular facet of their individuality, these “portraits” are very appropriately located within the hallowed halls of the London’s temple of portraiture. Ranging from etching to tapestry, enamel portrait to glazed pottery, they show Perry at his adroit best. But beyond the skilled execution of these works is the messages they so sensitively and intelligently portray.
In mounting the show, Perry tells how he chose sitters who were each on some kind of identity journey. People who had changed religion or gender, physical or mental facilities, lost status or belonging to a group who are actively trying to change the way others see them. Thus Perry presents a vase representing the fall from grace of politician Chris Huhne, who was imprisoned for perjury after asking his wife to take the blame for a speeding offence he had committed. The vase shows his image and that of his car registration plate repeated over and over like the tire tracks of his car. It was smashed and pieced back together again in gold demonstrating Huhne’s downfall but also the fact that his new fragility in a world dominated by generic status figures will make him a richer more complex individual. There too Perry gives us a miniature enamel portrait hidden away in glass cases with others far older. It portrays XFactor star Rylan Clark as the Earl of Essex because, as Perry says, celebrity is the aristocracy of the day.
But amongst my favourites was the Ashford Hijab, a brilliantly drafted black, white and red design on a silk scarf (appropriately) illustrating the draw of Islam for young white middle aged women who are sick of consumer culture and sexualised scrutiny of women and seek instead the comparative calm and integral values of Islam. So it shows one woman leading her family towards Mecca, her hijab being the metamorphosis of a road which in turn transforms from the outlet shopping centre of consumer culture from which she flees. Brilliant.
I also loved Memory Jar, the vase sensitively portraying the effects of Alzheimer’s on a couple, as the disease ravages the mind of one man leaving his wife deprived not only of his personality and mental functions, but also destroying their shared memories. As Perry says, two people are the guardians of their shared memories. Once one person goes, so does the poignancy of the memories, and in depicting this he shows a kind of demon cutting up the family photos of the couple also reflected on the vase. It’s a stunning piece.
And of course mention has to go to Comfort Blanket, a huge banknote tapestry representing everything that is so intrinsic to British culture and which makes the country such a stable, lawful, integral place, drawing people from all over the world. Of course fish and chips looms large, as well as words like “fair play” and “Posh and Becks”. Everything on it was so English I stood in awe at how masterfully Perry had managed to capture the essence of an entire nation in one tapestry. It also felt particularly poignant for me, an Englishman, as I prepare to leave England to move overseas in only a few days time.
Grayson Perry: Who are You? is showing at The National Portrait Gallery until 15 March 2015. Entrance is free.