#Grayson Perry and The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

I have to admit that most of my posts are written on the run, with little consideration of reflection or any evaluation beforehand. It works well for me most of the time, because it’s the only way I can satisfactorily incorporate daily blogging into life.

Sometimes, though, more is called for. And today’s post on Grayson Perry‘s extraordinary and brilliant exhibition showing at the British Museum until later this month has been a long time in contemplation, because I honestly couldn’t think where to begin to do it justice. And I needed to go back for a second visit to really take it all in. First time around I was accompanied by Prodigal Son. Second time around I visited with Middle Daughter. Both are discerning and seasoned critics with a low boredom threshold. Both were agreed that it was the best exhibition they had seen for some time. It’s no mean feat to have such accord across the generations of our family.

The exhibition at one level celebrates the joy of skill and craftsmanship by anonymous makers from the past in an age now where skill and craftsmanship is generally underrated and undervalued. “Craft” has been a dirty word for many many years in a fine art context, which has always pained me. I have crafty inclinations which once upon a time I felt almost embarrassed about, but it hasn’t stopped me from always making something as well as I possibly can.

But it’s not just about the craft, or the metaphorical and symbolic pilgrimage within the institutional museum setting to the tomb of the unknown craftsman. Despite Perry’s introductory admonition not to look too hard for meaning in the exhibition, it was impossible to escape the cascading multitude of  thoughts and reflections prompted at every stage of the ‘journey’.

Above all, Grayson Perry captures the essence of today’s culture like no other artist. His  The Frivolous Now (2011) is consciously an eclectic verbal assemblage of banal phrases and buzzwords from one night in February 2011, but in fact all his work snatches and uses the banal buzzy clichés and well-worn concepts of contemporary society in a way which clearly resonates with the audience.

I find it fascinating how his superficially light and humorous touch can be so profoundly unsettling. It could of course just be me and my response: on arrival in the exhibition space, the visitor is confronted by You Are Here, a glazed ceramic vase listing the reasons visitors have for coming to the exhibition. I find myself circling this vase with increasingly uncomfortable fascination. Will I find my reasons there? What, indeed are my reasons? I don’t want to be associated with any of those listed: the free tickets. the need to keep up with the arts; the desire to follow a Times recommendation. I’m different, am I not, to all other visitors? I’m not of the herd. I sort of convince myself that I’m not there on the vase, but of course I probably am. I’m just in denial.

I also appreciate the underlying serious knowledge and understanding of both artistic  influences and cultural borrowings, whether it’s to do with the lead glazed earthenware of eighteenth century potters or Chinese porcelain depictions of Europeans. Grayson Perry wears his erudition lightly (I found it funny how often phrases popping into my head about his approach and work were frequently reflected in the works themselves: The Rosetta Vase (2011), for example, talks of ‘hold your beliefs lightly’) and he is a superb communicator. There’s not enough Plain English in the art world, and I think his direct and lucid commentary is one of the main reasons why my youngsters took so much away from their visits.

The exhibition is beautifully curated. A coherent visual delight from start to finish. It becomes a great game as the visit progresses to spot the ancient artefacts amongst the Grayson Perry artefacts. His Early English Cycle Helmet (1981) juxtaposed with a ceremonial headdress from the museum collection catches the visitor by surprise from the start, but even forewarned, many other similar surprises lie in store.

There is a good deal of interesting work from the early years. La Tour de Claire (1983) made from found objects reminds not only the artist that art can be made with no money at the kitchen studio, but everyone else in this age of frantic spend spend spend to achieve anything. I should set myself the challenge of making some art this year spending precisely nothing. It would do me a lot of good.

Grayson Perry is a remarkable and original artist and craftsman. And curator. And a lot of people clearly think so, if the numbers making notes and furiously sketching anything and everything in sight were anything to go by. (But that’s a post for another day on a very different topic). He depicts the essence of who we are and how we are. To be able to reach out to such a wide yet receptive audience and yet not drop into banal mass-entertainment mode is seriously impressive. If you haven’t been, do go and catch this exhibition before it closes.


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