Serpentine Gallery, London, until Sept 10
Who’s a clever boy then? Grayson Perry, it seems, to his many admirers. Hitherto I’ve tended to be heretical, a sceptic as regards the performance, suspecting that the whole “Claire” shtick, complete with blobby lipstick, box-pleat party frocks and girly accessories, is too obviously a case of “Let’s épater les bourgeois for everything they’re worth.” Not this time, however. At an exhibition subtitled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, your reviewer shrinks to the level of a political journalist in the wake of the recent election trying to convince readers that after weeks of trashing Corbyn, they always knew he had it in him.
For the new show at the Serpentine Gallery tells us as much about the artist’s versatility and deft craftsmanship as it does about the shrewd confidence of that gimlet-eyed gaze Perry keeps turned on contemporary Britain.
Perry is, first and foremost, a fine satirist in the Hogarth and James Gillray tradition, but his merciless analysis of our ongoing dance with crisis and catastrophe is cleverly muted by the skill with which he exploits his various media: ceramic, textile, sculpture or engraving. The Serpentine space, in his hands, becomes a padded room in which the artist is intent on beating us up good and proper before we are allowed to leave.
Several exhibits reflect personal enthusiasms: a skateboard incised with a Madonna and Child, a Kenilworth motorbike got up like a Pakistani truck in fantasy flowers. Others, such as a wayside shrine or a series of figures spiked full of nails and blades like African fetishes, mark the wide trawl of Perry’s visual memory. A spread of textiles, such as Death of a Working Hero or Red Carpet, is both seductive in its handling of colour and subtly polemical in its overview of a Britain which the artist sees as paradoxically united through division. The same theme of a nation reaching out across a gulf of conflicting values is mirrored by Matching Pairs, ceramic vases based on arguments from either side of the Brexit debate.
Prepare to be enchanted by the typical playfulness of Perry’s artefacts, even as you feel the sandpaper of his acerbic vision scratching at smugness and complacency. The technical brilliance of Luxury Brands for Social Justice, with its toothsome pink and green glazes, is wickedly offset by its parody of modish liberalism. After looking at works like this and his lavish nude self-portrait in woodcut which greets the visitor, you slink home with a couple of black eyes, plenty of bruises but a sense that this particular kind of duffing-up has been, after all, life-affirming and inspiriting.