Playing to the Gallery – Grayson Perry

I was looking for some reading, something interesting and preferably short!  Grayson Perry has been introduced through this module and seeing his exhibition in Bristol in December 2017, so he seemed a natural choice as his writing is easy and accessible.  This book covers the approach to art, asking the questions: “What is art?” “Who decides what is art and what isn’t?” “Why is it ok to like some artists and not others?”

There is a section on photography that rang a bell with me.  How do you tell if a photograph is art? “In the 1990s you could tell it was art because no-one was smiling and they often had a stagey portentousness.” (p64) Now that we are flooded with images on all different platforms, it is even more difficult. Humourously he suggested “you could probably still just see if they are smiling.” In which case, it probably is not art.  In addition, if the photograph is huge then it probably is art.  It struck me as a fair assumption in these days where there are some enormous sized prints in exhibitions, but there are also some much smaller.  At the Tillmans exhibition for example, he placed one tiny 6×4 image next to one that filled most of the available wall.  Does that make it art too?

At a time when I have managed to visit more exhibitions than ever before, I am constantly questioning why a particular photographer is lauded as an artist when someone else who produces really good work is not.  It may be something to do with the context of the work that I have not been privilege to that makes a difference in connecting with the work.  Thomas Ruff left me non-plussed while I admired Tillmans and found his work interesting and varied.  I saw some beautiful photographs of the Syrian conflict that had pathos and humanity to them but thought that some of the more famous work on display in the Elton John collection were dull.  Maybe in the end it is all down to personal connection and whether we can see something to relate to in the images.

In another chapter he discusses technology and its effect on art.  Photography was a challenge to painting as it asked “What is art now that photography can do it?”. (p101)  This leads on to the use of technology to produce art and he has fully embraced technology to draw and produce some of his works, the tapestries in particular as it has enabled him to make things he would not have thought about or tried to make before it.  During the 1980s and 1990s the technology lead the art – he gives examples of art that were cutting edge at the time but now seem almost redundant.  As technology makes artists of us all (with cameras on phones that can film and make stills, drawing apps and so on), what becomes important is the approach of the artist, “the approach of the artist is more and more relevant in the age of creative capital.” (p103). However, in his conclusion he says that in fact technology in some ways has protected the art world because with the internet, people can look up work and then make an effort to go and see it. In fact it seems that, in the digital age, people are keener than ever to visit art galleries, to be in the presence of the actual unique object (and take a selfie in front of it, natch, to post on Twitter)”. (p134)  From the point of view of someone who lives in Devon where there are not the galleries and opportunities to see work, the internet has been invaluable.  But seeing something familiar close up and having the chance to examine it closely, to see the colours as they should be, the size it really is and the whole thing in front of you is still the best way to appreciate the work that goes into some of the pieces.

A great short book on art and how to view it without any pretentious waffle is refreshing, but I am biased as I like Perry and his approach.  He is engaging and talks in a way that I can understand.  My review is completely non-academic but the book made me think a lot more about what I am seeing.

Playing to the Gallery, Grayson Perry, 2014, Penguin Books (2016)

Grayson Perry at Arnolfini, Bristol

Since being pointed in his direction through this course, I have really liked Perry and his work.  It’s a refreshing change and is made doubly interesting by the television programmes that he has made that explain the context of the work.  I recently watched Britain Divided, on a plane journey of all places, and was interested in seeing the two pots that he had made in response to the views and opinions of the opposing parties of the Brexit question.  Holly Woodward, another OCA student, wrote a blog post about visiting this exhibition and her reaction to it, and since Bristol is close by it was a golden opportunity to visit and see his works up close.

I went to visit the Arnolfini just before Christmas last year and just in time, as the exhibition closed on the following Sunday.  It was busy with plenty of people circling around the exhibits, reading the information and talking about them.  Again, it was refreshing to be somewhere where it was a mix of ages with children as well as adults, it wasn’t quiet as people discussed the work and the ability to take photos on my phone without feeling like I was stealing something.  The overall impression of the exhibition was of colour – the work was varied in bright colours and the tapestries were huge and full of colour and detail.  The pots are covered in lots of tiny detail and I would have liked some more time to fully go round each one.  Like Holly, I was interested by the gold motifs that adorned most of the pots.  They looked arabic in some way, perhaps religious symbols? They were small but stood out against the backgrounds so attracted my attention.  The pots are about Britain and what people value about it, and yet this “foreign” symbol was on it too so perhaps he was commenting on the wide range of faiths that make Britain unique.

The tapestries were attention grabbing, not least because they often took up most of a wall.  One was a deep red and looked like a map, and it was set on a backdrop of tower blocks.  The places and street names were all ‘buzz words’ that are in current everyday use, and I found this amusing because they are the sort of words and expressions that can irritate me or make me laugh when used all the time.  This piece struck me as being very much of the here and now a comment on society and how we use language.

Grayson Perry, Red Carpet, 2017

It also reminded me of the opening scene from Eastenders with the map of the loop of London and the Thames.  However, it could be anywhere.

The pots are fascinating and full of comments on certain situations.  One was on how those with money can see good causes as being good for the CV or because they are told it is a good thing.


I got the impression that he is poking fun at The Establishment, at set views and things that we believe because we are told to do so.  Is it possible then that we are enjoying the exhibition because he makes it light hearted, almost not serious and therefore more accessible.  The descriptions accompanying the exhibits were all written by him in an easy to read style, and you could almost hear him talking about them.  I believe that this is what makes him popular, it is the accessibility of him and his work made more so by television appearances.  Having said that, I took my husband and he knows only Perry’s name not his work and he enjoyed it even without any prior knowledge.

From a photography point of view, there is a lot going on and shows how images can be used in several ways.  The pots used transfers of personal photographs and other things from advertising, all merged together in telling the story.  There is a lot to look at in all the works on display, there is colour, there is size and there is humour.  The work is clever without being highbrow, accessible with or without any knowledge and I found that to be a positive change from other exhibitions that I have seen.  I often feel disconnected from the work and this is made more so by the atmosphere of galleries.  Art needs to be discussed whatever your opinion and sometimes it doesn’t matter if you miss the meaning as long as you get something from it.  This exhibition made me want to be more creative in the way that I approach my own photography