Grayson Perry’s show The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at Arnolfini may well deserve its self-aggrandizing title. Filling all three floors of the venue, the exhibition washes the entire building in a typically sunny dose of what Perry does best: audience-friendly cultural criticism through art.
The exhibition is relevant, sardonic and witty. At any moment it feels as though the works might digitalise, Tweet and trend themselves on Twitter. Gender; Trump; the Left; the Right; Britain, Bikers and Brexit: all are subjected to Perry’s popular craft.
Nor do its vying, dissenting voices prove cacophonous. Its excellent curatorship (the mark of a successful collaboration between venue and artist) leads the viewer on a journey across contemporary Britain, navigating its many themes and threads. Each work is accompanied by a short reflection by the artist, affectionately signed ‘GP’. It feels as if we are involved, taken seriously, invited to join the conversation.
On the ground floor, Perry wages war against masculine culture, packing a motorised punch. His AM1, a custom-model motorbike complete with floral designs, pink paint-job and teddy-bear shrine, stands defiantly in the foreground, dominating an entire wall of the gallery. Accompanying it close by is Animal Spirit, Perry’s etching of a male, boar-like creature. Showcasing organs labelled with traditionally masculine character traits (serious, rational, sensible, logical, objective), it recalls the 16th-century anatomical works of Vesalius. But, whilst the 16th century examined the body, the 21st century viewer must examine the psychology.
The first floor turns the topic of conversation to Britain. The central room is dominated by Perry’s vast tapestry Battle of Britain. It has a grimy feel. Centre-stage is an un-encompassing rainbow, into which are entangled the blood-red branches of a naked tree, capillary-like. Perry’s tapestry craft boldly defies any notion that this medium is a relic of dark National Trust properties. The artist imprints soft furniture patterns, adding a texture that cuts through the content, relocating the viewer into a far more intimate domestic setting. These are British issues, not just Westminster’s, and are part of the very fabric of our individual lives.
The second floor features a number of Perry’s television documentaries, screened in Arnolfini’s Dark Room. And for those that find it, there’s one more room. It contains just two works, the inspiration for which come from conversations the artist conducted with a group of young men on an estate in Skelmersdale. It was tempting to write that this room seemed hidden away. What if the visitor missed it altogether? But, I suspect, this is Perry playing games with the visitor. Just as this community is forgotten in the national conversations of state, so too will only the most conscientious viewer make it to these final artistic statements on British subculture and community.
As Arnolfini embarks on an ambitious quest to redefine new rules for a contemporary arts centre for 21st-century audiences, it has cause to congratulate itself on this exhibition. Banksy aside, maybe this really is The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!
Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! continues at Arnolfini until December 24. Entry is free. For more info, visit www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/the-most-popular-art-exhibition-ever-grayson-perry
Read more: Interview: Grayson Perry