Grayson Perry: Visual Dialogues
Manchester Art Gallery
1 February 2011–12 February 2012
by ANNA McNAY
Perfectly turned out in a pink and green satin dress, with matching hair ribbons and boldly rouged cheeks, Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry climbs the stairs in the airy atrium of Manchester Art Gallery to deliver a short speech celebrating the gallery’s acquisition of two of his works, previewing now as part of an exhibition co-curated by a group of young people aged between 15-18. “My artworks are like babies,” he says. “When I give them over to people to display, I’m nervous because I want them to look their best.” Then he breathes a sigh of relief, expressing his pleasure that, this time, he “didn’t have to lie”!
The two works, Jane Austen in E17 (2009) and Print for a Politician (2005) were chosen as virtuoso examples of his creative style, which draws from diverse sources of inspiration, from museums to public culture and street life. The Jane Austen work is a vase carefully painted with images of ladies in Regency costume drinking tea, but when one looks more closely, it is plastered underneath with photographs and advertisements taken from contemporary gossip magazines and sites around his studio in Walthamstow (E17). This highlights how far and yet how near east London now is from Hampshire two centuries ago. The vase takes centre stage in a room filled with thematically arranged objects and works from the gallery’s own collection, including prints by Paul Nash and C. R. W. Nevinson, a Toby Jug, a studded leather biker jacket, a post 2010 election edition of Hello magazine, a Barbie doll, wrestling pants worn by Douglas Clark, world heavyweight wrestling champion (1928-33), and various Jane Austen memorabilia. There is also a short Regency influenced film, produced by the young curators, set in Manchester city centre.
Print for a Politician, on the other hand, is one of Perry’s large-scale colour etchings. It depicts a scene where everyone is at war, with a long list of groups, from Christians, Nazis, and Satanists, to conspiracy theorists and animal rights activists, added at random. The idea is that everyone will identify with at least one group, questioning the notion of a distinct “them” and “us”.
Overall, the project seeks to bring together themes of class, politics and identity, art versus craft, appearance and reality, and old versus new. For Grayson, at least, it marks a coming full circle, since this is his first time at Manchester Art Gallery, famous for its Pre-Raphaelite collection, and, as a sixth-form student he was awarded as a prize a book on these very artists. Ushered off for a late evening meal, Perry bewails being dragged from his audience midway through tales of his recent bike ride round Bavaria with his teddy bear. “I don’t know where he wants to go next, but it has to be arduous, it has to be a challenge. […] It wouldn’t be worth doing if it wasn’t a struggle.” Can the same be said of Grayson’s approach to his work? It is certainly challenging for his audience. But yet, speaking of the Jane Austen vase he says quite simply: “Embarrassing as it is for an artist to admit nowadays, I was really striving for beauty.” Well, I think that has been achieved as well.