‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ said a wise uncle to his superhero nephew once. It’s a sentiment that hovers around Grayson Perry’s exhibition. Granted, Perry’s own alter ego wears lipstick and gingham rather than a mask and spandex, but the artist/transvestite/unlikely national treasure feels just as much the reluctant hero. This show is intended as a meditation on the role of popularity in art, but if it does anything, it highlights there’s little difference between one ‘P’ word and the other.
It was Perry’s ceramic pots that threw him into the mainstream's limelight, but here you’ll also find tapestries, woodcuts, assemblages and custom-made motorbikes and skateboards. Those who deride him for glibly milking the zeitgeist (middle-aged broadsheet critics for the most part) won’t be converted here. Nationalist politics, art-world bickering, the class divide, austerity Britain – Perry casts his net far and wide, with a wry frown and his tongue in cheek.
Curiously, it’s the bleaker moments that resonate most. Those who’ve read his book ‘The Descent of Man’ will know he views traditional masculinity as a ticking time bomb of rising suicide rates, domestic abuse and online misogyny; in one woodcut, it’s depicted as a snarling beast with humongous bollocks whose innards are labelled with words like ‘logical’, ‘rational’ and ‘important.’ Another piece, a savage takedown of the institution of marriage, features two miserable-looking wooden spouses encased in an airtight box. Uncommonly for artists, Perry is at his best at his most righteous.
What really undermines all his elitism-versus-populism, high-versus-low, posh-versus-common prevaricating is a strong sense that, deep down, he wishes he was still the un-pigeonhole-able outsider who confounded TV audiences when he accepted the Turner Prize in a frock in 2003. He isn’t. If the nationwide exhalation of progressive hope on June 8 proved anything, it’s that we’re entering more awakened times. And whether he likes it or not, Perry is now a fully-paid member of the establishment. Power, popularity: whatever you want to call it, he has it. His art needs to catch up, and start acting the part.