Matilda Haymes considers the ideas behind Grayson Perry’s ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’.
On display for the entirety of the Arnolfini’s autumn season, Grayson Perry’s ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’ is a vibrant explosion of beautifully crafted pieces, all offering a provocative commentary on modern Britain. Great care has been taken to ensure that every part of the exhibition is not only aesthetically appealing, but also wonderfully insightful. The collection exclusively deals with British issues – predominantly politics and masculinity, two topics that Perry is famed for.
The first floor of the exhibition explores masculine identity. Perry’s focus is not on all-encompassing notions of masculinity, but rather on smaller, specific groups of men, and the pressure of social expectation on them. It is important for Perry to differentiate like this, and by doing so the message he conveys is far more powerful. By focusing on precise issues, he creates a more personal feel in his work, and gives the viewer a chance to empathise with the individual, rather than the generalised male population.
One particularly poignant piece was a ceramic entitled Shadow Boxing. The piece considers the collapse of the heavy industry in the North of England, and the impact this had on men in these professions. There are discontented faces, staring out of a dark, glazed jar that has been embossed with various lager logos. Shadow Boxing highlights the macho-stereotype of the North East and the heart-breaking consequences of ‘laddish drinking culture’, combined with an emotional repression. Perry states that this piece ‘is a memorial to the victims of that manly stereotype, the men who could not talk about their feelings, who could not cope, and who took their own lives.’ The contrast between the assorted alcohol brands and the mournful eyes adjacent forces you to consider the masculine drinking culture as a dangerous disguise, outwardly projecting a sense of sociability and unity, but all too often becoming a way for men to divert emotional connections and conversations.
Other pieces on this floor are far more light-hearted. The most prominent piece is a giant baby pink and blue motorcycle with a heart-embossed bird hutch attached to its back wheel. The slogan “patience, humility, chastity” is emblazoned along its side – the antithesis of stereotypical biker culture.
Throughout this floor, Perry has looked at rigid ideas of masculinity through the artistic mediums that he has used. The majority of the pieces are created in typically feminine colours and styles – baby pink is frequent. There are giant tapestries adorning the walls. Perry has surprisingly subtly deconstructed masculine notions by doing this, and evoked a need for increasing fluidity when considering what it means to be a man.
The upper two floors are reserved for commentary on contemporary British politics. Housing the infamous Brexit themed jars, Matching Pair, Perry has colloquially deconstructed divisive political debates by considering what makes up each ideology. The two jars’ creation were followed in Perry’s Channel 4 Documentary Divided Britain, where he interviewed people from both sides of the Brexit debates about what they loved about Britain. He has depicted both the interviewees and their answers on the different jars. Although there are subtle clues that distinguish the jars from one another – the ominous stare of Nigel Farage being the key differentiator – there are far more similarities than you would expect. Perry’s aim is clear: to unify his viewers, showing there is far more tying them together than separating them.
Perry’s exhibition is so wonderfully engaging because it looks at the most infamous political and social issues through a heavily personal lens. He focuses on people rather than overarching disputes, humanising subjects that are far too often only seen as statistics. His artwork is an enigmatic portrayal of British society, refreshingly captivating from beginning to end.
Illustration by Amy Knox.