Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries, named ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, has been touring round the UK since 2012. Considering the distinctive lack of an edgy art scene in Exeter, I was elated to discover that the latest exhibition would be a stone’s throw away, in Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery, and so I ventured off with the Art Society to see his artwork in the flesh.
Deriving from his programme for Channel 4 – ‘All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry’ – he explores the corrupted interiority of our civilised lives. The tapestries are a hard-hitting visual depictions of the impact of consumer culture, and the effects of stark class divisions. Perry presents this as a timeworn phenomenon, as the weaved characters collide into a narrative inspired by Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (1732). Hogarth’s series of eight paintings tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a young man who inherits a fortune from his miserly father, wastes it on fashionable pursuits and gambling, marries for money, gambles away a second fortune, ends up in a debtors’ prison and dies in a madhouse. Perry tells the rise and fall of the modernized version of Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell; ‘Tim’ Rakewell’s demise is presented as an inevitable consequence of blind consumerist consumption, and cunning capitalist companies such as Apple insisting that we need to buy their latest product to validate our worth as human beings. For example, in the first tapestry ‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’, Tim is an infant, and Perry annotates that his mother’s smartphone is ‘his rival for her attention’. The artist implies the deterioration of social relationships, which have been undermined by the latest trends.
Grayson Perry comments: “the tapestries tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design, but for this project I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character – we care”. Indeed, we care so much about how we are perceived by others, that it’s detrimental to the self, as evidenced by Tim’s ruin. Perry’s critique of the contemporary is so complex and clever that every single thing weaved on the tapestries has significance. The intricacy is up for you to interpret, which is why it is so fantastic to see these up close. The only limiting thing about this exhibition was the unnecessary accompanying analyses, which diminishes the spectator’s imagination. I recommend spending a good five minutes just observing, before reading the articulate rantings of this Turner-winning, cross-dressing artist.
“I recommend spending a good five minutes just observing, before reading the articulate rantings of this Turner-winning, cross-dressing artist.”
Perry has always worked with traditional media, specialising in ceramics, bronze, printmaking and tapestry. He is interested in the historical connotations of media, and so uses the tradition of tapestry to juxtapose modern concepts. Tapestries in the past have depicted classical myths, religious scenes and epic battles. In this series, Perry plays with this ancient allegorical form to elevate commonplace dramas of British life today into high art. Their striking vibrancy, intense colour, intricate design, and sophisticated technique is a spectacle itself, without the social commentary.
Perry is my favourite contemporary artist. The problem with him, however, is that he is so self-conscious about promoting himself as a controversial provoker, which is actually limiting to his work. He doesn’t need the lengthy annotations showcasing his anarchy, and his talent doesn’t need to be supported by a lacklustre television career. Subtlety is sometimes key to an artist’s legacy, and I can’t imagine that he’ll be studied in art history in the years to come, because he’s told us everything about him in advance. Although for the meantime, we may as well enjoy his work… and use this exhibition as an excuse to explore the ever-lovely Bath.