The new exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate covers the work of the current great success story of British art. It is a success seen and heard on radio and television on a daily basis. The happily married father, holder of an MBE, soon to be installed Chancellor of the University of the Arts, and national treasure beloved by all, is Grayson Perry.
It’s both appropriate and ironic that it’s in Margate. Appropriate because Margate is a wreck of a seaside town that has never recovered from Thatcherism, and this devastation of places, people and ideas is one subject of Perry’s work. Nothing is more fitting than to see the place before seeing the work — his films, drawings, pots, tapestries, imagined maps, poetry et al. The energy seems limitless.
It is ironic in that Margate is the birthplace of that other artist, Tracey Emin. Perry had a troubled childhood with his stepfather and this, along with his transvestism, is another subject of the art.
Both Emin and Perry have viewed the world through the mirror of their teenage rebellions, one in Essex, the post-punk transvestite, the other, the wayward girl in Kent. Both from the fringes of London, they have used art as a means of escape and of understanding the mess that they found themselves in — the smashed up world when market forces are let loose.
There is no doubt that Perry is a great critic and explainer of the art world. But much of this art is so embedded in time and place that it could age very quickly, particularly the tapestries. Who will know of MySpace in five years? The pots are the best — wonderful and disturbing — with layers of meaning and references. James Gillray, the 18th century satirist, is a clear influence.
Perry’s early films from the 1980s show a witty anti-Thatcherism, like a milder Lily Savage. His maps and drawings are clever and engrossing. But it’s not a safe and cuddly world. Satire interweaves with anxiety, trauma, war and helplessness. Class is central to the work but class as defined by consumption and style.
On the surface, the work sits in the mainstream of the art establishment — embrace the market, be self-obsessed, take nothing too seriously. Though Perry has called the exhibition Provincial Punk, there’s no anarchism. Although he shares “their willingness to turn things over”, he says, “it is a teasing kind of rebellion; it is not a violent rebellion.” But neither is it a cynical playful mash-up of trendy art school fashions. The art is better than that.
Beneath the cynicism is an anguish, a working out of an inner and outer world gone wrong. Against the odds and current fashions, the work strives towards seriousness.