Jenny Uglow reviews Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! for The New York Review of Books
By Jenny Uglow
The Outside-In Art of Grayson Perry
Facing you as you walk into Grayson Perry’s show at Serpentine Galleries, in the middle of London’s Hyde Park, is a huge woodcut, Reclining Artist, showing the artist as his alter ego Claire, reclining nude on a sofa like Manet’s Olympia. Here is the artist-model surrounded by his obsessions: bike parts, images of Alan Measles, his teddy-bear Muse (or, as Perry calls him, his “metaphor for masculinity and God”), and piles of books, including one on Zaha Hadid, who designed the tent-like curving extension to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, across the river. “I am here, in the center of things,” it seems to say. Is this blatant egocentricity, as sniping critics have claimed, or wry self-awareness? As the title of the Serpentine show suggests—“Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!”—Perry is always ready to mock his own status. When he dreamed up the title, he writes in the catalogue, “It made me laugh, and slightly nervous laughter is the reaction most art world people have to it.”
Perry’s work is full of bounding energy, an ebullient combination of wit, silliness, seriousness, anger, insight, and compassion. Since he won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his startling decorated pots, he’s come to terms with his insider-outsider status, happily turning out on grand occasions as Claire, with blonde hair, outrageous clothes, bright pink lipstick, and dangly earrings. And if some of the high and mighty are still tight-lipped and disconcerted, the British public have taken him to their hearts, not least because of his openness, his barking laugh, and his ability to listen to people of all classes. He’s proved unfailingly astute in his dissection of contemporary British culture and taste, offering a Hogarthian survey of the nation’s tribes in the tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences and accompanying television series in 2012, delivering the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures in 2013, and making several strange, sympathetic documentaries.