Grayson Perry: “The Vanity of Small Differences”

Victoria Miro Gallery, Hoxton

Six stunning tapestries (woven on a computerised loom, from colour-blocked scans of paintings, according to the guy at the cash desk) depicting a modern Rake’s Progress. Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell has become Tim Rakewell, pink-lensed software magnate of working-class origins, who gets dragged into the middle classes by a posh girlfriend, makes it big, jobs the upper echelons (country estate, swampies with banners urging him to pay more tax), and then dies on a dark and rainy pavement when showing off his Ferrari to his new young wife. The story is similar to that of Ed King (q.v.), but that’s not surprising, as rags-to-riches-to-rags must be one of the oldest stories; it’s the trajectory of tragedy, the hyperbola of hybris (parabola doesn’t alliterate).

Perry’s tapestries are like his pots (some of which are in the gallery), collages of icons of everyday contemporary life, laced with texts. Every picture seems to have an iPhone or iPad, or both, and the texts, words from the mouths of the depicted characters, are fluent, idiomatic expressions of the kind of clichéd speech we’d imagine they’d say. That’s where some of the force and the unease come in, our post-Blair awkwardness at bold class stereotypes. You can’t shrug off your embarrassment, as you know it’s true: people do look, behave and speak like that. There’s a long and fascinating interview with Perry on YouTube where he claims his whole mission is to create discomfort among art audiences. Fair dues.

His compositions are wonderful: each tapestry is based on a famous old painting, which gives them a (usually religious) depth. The first tapestry shows a baby in the arms of his mother, in Marian blue, adored by two Heath-style chaps from the council estate, and the last shows Rakewell dying in the pose of a pietà, in the arms of a nurse, again wearing dark blue. The best example is where his posh university girlfriend drags him left to right into the middle classes in the pose of Adam and Eve expelled from Eden (see picture), from a mother on her knees, and a father waving a golf club, to a olive-oil and red-wine dinner party in front of a bookcase. Titles are good: “The Agony in the Car Park”; “The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal”, wherein Rakewell makes it big by signing up with Richard Branson – words always seem on an equal footing with images.

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So, very contemporary juxtapositions of icons from the past with the ephemera of life today, of images with text, all made discomfiting with some old-fashioned class consciousness (I loved the middle-class dinner-party man’s shirt, stamped all over with “Ironic?”). But why tapestries? As with his pots, tapestry is an old, craft-based art form which sets up expectations counter to his content; it’s a way of creating tension in the viewer. And at a simple level the blocked colour and textures are just great to look at – striking and memorable.

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