The work of Grayson Perry has always sought to ignite and unite, pairing traditional craft with the visceral jab of modern narrative. Still where the etchings of our society meet clay, today Perry is a bona fide household name.
How can contemporary art address a diverse cross-section of society? That’s a concern Perry considers in his new Serpentine Gallery show The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!
The rousing title – with a wink – alludes not only to the themes covered, touching on popularity and art, masculinity and the current cultural landscape, but the fact summer is when both Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park enjoy hugely increased local and national audiences. Which holds plenty of potential for Perry, if he can lure them from skygazing on the grass or boating on the lake.
And why wouldn’t he? Since his Channel 4 series last year investigating masculinity, accompanied by the book The Descent of Man and the lecture tour Typical Man in a Dress, Perry has gone from gallery artist to television philosopher and cultural commentator. Not that there is a chasm between either role – far from it – but in terms of accessibility he’s reached a new high, that of a household name.
Which is all well and good for the acceleration of his art, with all its mark of inclusivity. An audience is poised for his signature ceramics, tapestry and sculpture, with their awe of craft and visceral contemporary narrative; featuring subject matter drawn from his own childhood and life as a transvestite, as well as wider social issues ranging from class and politics to sex and religion.
The drawings you see here come from sketchbooks fuelling The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! What’s between their covers is not usually seen, since the artist regards them as close to a sacred artefact – they’re the one place he can play without expectation or consequence; where he is truly free to gather his thoughts. Perry says: “I am in the communication business and I want to communicate to as wide an audience as possible. Nothing pleases me more than meeting someone at one of my exhibitions from what museum people call ‘a non- traditional background.’ The new works I am making all have ideas about popularity hovering around them. What kind of art do people like? What subjects? Why do people like going to art galleries these days? What is the relationship of traditional art to social media?”
Social media was in fact used by Perry to invite thoughts, images and phrases for two new Brexit-themed pots, one for the Brexiteers and one for the Remainers. He has also visited the most passionately ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ areas of the country for a new Channel 4 documentary, Grayson Perry: What Britain Wants, the airing of which coincides with not only the anniversary of the Brexit vote but the opening of this exhibition.