Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences

Artist Grayson Perry pays homage to Renaissance religious iconography and Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress' in a fabulous series of colourful, humorous and sharply observed tapestries depicting contemporary British life. At the Victoria Miro Gallery.

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It's about time we stopped referring to Grayson Perry as "the transvestite potter who won the Turner Prize". That was then (2003); this is now, and Perry, by his own admission, hasn't made a pot for ages. Perry, who is articulate and highly engaging on any subject, and who has always used his art and craft to comment on contemporary society's mores, hypocrisies, and preoccupations, has now turned his keen artist's gaze and curiosity onto taste and the British (which is, of course, synonymous with class) in a television series and an exhibition.

The exhibition, at Victoria Miro gallery, is the end-product of the many sketches and photos he took during the making of his series for Channel 4 'All in the Best Possible Taste'. Designed in Photoshop, the huge tapestries (there are six in all) are made in a factory in Flanders, Perry tapping into the great tradition of Belgian tapestry-making. Referencing Renaissance art in their homage to religious works by Grunewald, Masaccio, and Van der Weyden, and the tradition of portraying wealth and status (The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and Mr & Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough), the tapestries are also social commentaries, for they are inspired by William Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress', a sharp satire on the perils of the profligate life.

In Perry's tapestries, Hogarth's protagonist, Tom Rakewell, becomes Tim Rakewell, a man who is born into a working class home but who escapes it (tapestry no. 3,  Expulsion From Number 8 Eden Close) and enters the middle class, to become a computer millionaire. Executed in bold colours, they fizz with witty and humorous details (product placement and instantly-recognisable brands, totems and class "heraldry": pimped up cars, kitsch curios, scatter cushions, a Cath Kidston handbag, iPad, organic veg, an espresso maker atop an Aga), while traditional iconography (such as the Adoration of the Magi) is replaced with contemporary detail and social observation. In the first, The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, a central Madonna figure clutches the infant Tim in the crook of her arm, checking her smart phone with her free hand, while two richly tattooed men make obeisance to the baby, offering a redundant miner's helmet rather than the traditional Magi gifts. They are watched by a posse of Mary's girlfriends, aglow with fake tan, their hair bouffanted and primped for a night on the town. But there is nothing sneering nor superior about Perry's representations of contemporary society: in his tv series he was determined to make "something warmer ... more understanding, more tender," and this is reflected in the tapestries. 

Each of the six scenes is dense and informative, packed with references to class tribes and rituals. The working class tapestries are monumental, at once celebratory and poignant, while tapestries 3 and 4 highlight the petty vanities of the middle classes (the 'Homes & Gardens' interior, fine wine and good olive oil on the dining table, designer clothes, books and liberal newspapers). Woven into each tapestry are snippets of text, a quote from one of the participants of each scene, and every image contains a skinny dog, a reference to Hogarth's pug, Trump.  

In tapestry 5, anti-capitalist protestors camp on Rakewell's country estate, in a swirling dystopian landscape setting whose bilious colours recall Munch's The Scream, while in the final image, a modern Pietà, Rakewell sprawls dead near his expensive new sports car, his glamorous second wife and iPhone close by, while a nurse comments, "All that money and he dies in the gutter". Overhead, a BP sign hangs in the sky, like a star. 

This fascinating social survey of contemporary British life, sharply observed yet exuding warmth and humour without a hint of sniggering, is a series of colourful, beautifully executed vignettes portraying the characters, incidents and objects Perry encountered in the making of his tv series. The exhibition also includes three pots by Perry and drawings of two others. 

Victoria Miro is delighted to announce its fourth solo exhibition with Grayson Perry.


In The Vanity of Small Differences Grayson Perry explores his fascination with taste and the visual story it tells of our interior lives in a series of six tapestries at Victoria Miro and three programmes, All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, for Channel 4.  The artist goes on a safari amongst the taste tribes of Britain, to gather inspiration for his artworks, literally weaving the characters he meets into a narrative partly inspired by Hogarth's A Rake's Progress.


Grayson Perry comments: "The tapestries tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design but for this project I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character - we care. This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject".


Perry has always worked with traditional media; ceramics, cast iron, bronze, printmaking and tapestry.  He is interested in how each historic category of object accrues over time intellectual and emotional baggage. Tapestry is the art form of grand houses: depicting classical myths, historical and religious scenes and epic battles. In this series of works Perry plays with idea of using this ancient allegorical art to elevate the commonplace dramas of modern British life.


The artist's primary inspiration was A Rake's Progress  (1732 -33) by William Hogarth, which in eight paintings tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a young man who inherits a fortune from his miserly father, spends it all on fashionable pursuits and gambling, marries for money, gambles away a second fortune, goes to debtors' prison and dies in a madhouse.


The Vanity of Small Differences tells the story of the rise and demise of Tim Rakewell and is composed of characters, incidents and objects Perry encountered on journeys through Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and The Cotswolds.


Hogarth has long been an influence on Perry's works, his Englishness, his robust humour and his depiction of, in his own words, 'modern moral subjects'. The secondary influence comes from Perry's favourite form of art, early Renaissance painting.


Each of the six images, to a greater or lesser extent, pays homage to a religious work.  Including Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, Rogier Van de Weyden's Lamentation and three different paintings of The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli,  Grünewald and Robert Campin.  The images also reference the pictorial display of wealth and status in The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck and Mr & Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough.  Woven into each tapestry are snatches of text, each one in the voice of a participant in the scene illustrated. Each image also features a small dog, reminiscent of Hogarth's beloved pug, Trump.

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