Pot Look

Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk (Turner Contemporary, 23 May 2015-13 September 2015)

Grayson Perry has his USP: the crossdressing, his alterego of Claire. This has speeded him on to National Treasure status, alongside his Turner Prize, Channel 4 documentaries and Reith Lectures. As always the avant garde and the rebellious is absorbed into the mainstream.

The Anthea Turner show acts as a retrospective and was heaving both times I went. I hope this is an appreciation of his work rather than a Dreamland ride of aghastness. You are repeatedly warned that some items on display are not suitable for children. They’re certain not suitable if you aren’t open to irony.

Because irony was the mode I was operating in. In a vitrined at the halfway point of the exhibition is a leather one piece motorcycle suit, with customised wording. It’s Thom Gunn drag, the hypermasculine, but from Essex rather than Kent. Does he love or hate Essex? Mockney Essex Boy Jamie Oliver is invoked at at later point. Pukka. Does he love or hate working class culture? Does he love or hate middle class culture? Does he love or hate arts and crafts? Does he love or hate the art world?

The first room is a series of pots — for the exegesis you have to consult pink handouts with the titles and descriptors of each pot, although the numbering is at random. I Love Beauty is one of the simpler ones — muted palette, a St Eustache-style deer vision, a Union Falg in monochrome, a woman (Claire?) holding sceptre and bird. Football Stands for Everything I Hate echoes the Eurocup, but with a list of pet hates: shouting; special brew; chewing gum; duvet covers and so on.

The second room was the hest to my taste — although here is where we get the most exegesis as to his background. More pots, tiles for a house, archive matials and a series of engravings: A Map of Days; Map of an Englishman and Print for a Politician. The latter is an imaginary landscape of a battleground, labelled with special interest grouos such as atheists, broadsheets, teenagers, gifted, fitness fanatics, Modernists, republicans, countryfolks, non-smokers. Which side are you on? It is encyclopedic without being completist, whimsical in its arbitrariness. Which side is Perry on? A similar aesthetic is at work in the other two etchings — qualities, moods and so on.

The third space, with the motorcycle suit, has two films, the less said about the better (there is also one in the second room), but then I’ve a low tolerance for filmed art. I’m sure he and his friends had fun, but we’re at a disadvantage in coming in oartway into 47 minutes and note really being able to hear the sound. My loss, perhaps.

The final room has three of his tapestries, handdrawn onto PhotoShop and then made on a computer controlled loom. Whilst in Tracey Emin’s tapestries shown here a few years ago, the labour of socres of women in producing them was silenced, here the labour is erased in favour of mechanisation. Again the mood is encyclopedic collage — the first piece is Comfort Blanket, A British Citizen at its heart, a stylised queen to the right, a monotone union flag to the left and a list of people and things that offer comfort. Margot Fonteyn, Beatrix Potter, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Agatha Christie, Jamie Oliver… Is confort good or bad? The Walthamstow Tapestry, from where London bleeds into Essex or vice versa (and wasn’t William Morris from around those parts?), is a tapestry of the seven ages of man, not so much a rake’s progress as a trademark’s progress. Finally there is a work on heaven and pilgrimage, whose name I failed to note, made for his British Museum Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition: a series of names for heaven surrounded by places of pilgrimage and stylised drawings that need not match the placename.

It is problematic to gender art modes, but there is a tradition of tapestry and embroidery being the work of women. Is the same true of pottery? As crafts they might get conceived of as lesser than the other arts — and then we bounce off that Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “Anon[…] was often a woman.” Does “Claire” give Grayson access to such folk arts (although let’s note the various sailors’ embroiderings shown at the Tate’s Folk Art exhibition)? On the other hand, just as sf is not a male genre, so pottery should not be a female one. But something makes me twitchy.

I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; it reminds me of some versions of the dérive, where people walk according to some algorithm except when they’re not. There’s clearly a sexualised unconscious being revealed/concealed among the bricolage, and that’s a fair enough schtick. A thing of beauty is a joy til morning, as someone once said and beauty is in the eye of the potmaker. Beauty is a measure of capital and class, among other things.

Meanwhile, it needs to be noted (and applauded) that the Anthea Turner will always display contemporary art alongside JMS Turner. Sometimes an artist will curate alingside her retrospective, sometimes paintings on the theme of the main exhibition will be shown. Here it is noted that Perry uses technology in the making of his work — and Turner was also an explorer of the latest technique. I see straws being clutched at…

Anguished Martian

Agnes Martin (Tate Modern, 3 June–11 October 2015)

In the ongoing round of suppressing women’s writing, so to speak, it is striking how rare a solo-female artist show is in a major institution show. In the moloch of the Tate, things are getting better — there’s the Hepworth show at Britain and the Sonia Delaunay at Modern overlapped with this. I confess to not having heard of Agnes Martin — who I guess historically fits into Abstract Expressionism pigeon hole and was associated with Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd.

Born in Canada in 1912, she moved to Washington to study in 1931 and was influenced by Zen Buddhism scholar D.T. Suzuki. The early work includes various biomorphic forms, dominos, game boards and claws, with Earth colours of brown, yellow, grey and white being prominent. But clearly she was striving toward the square and the grid, with an evident dislike of the curve.

Three years ago, Tate Modern had a Yayoi Kusama, with thousands of spots, apparently symptomatic of her struggle with mental breakdowns and her willingly living in a psychiatric institution. Here we get the square grid as expression of Martin’s schizophrenia.

The obsession, the repetition, the very straight lines.

H’mm. I don’t know. I’m not sure the diagnosis is helpful.

But you can see that she works a very narrow range of variants on the grid and the stripe, the faded deck chair. By the time you get to The Island, a series of white squares with grey lines, the impact is very subtle and yet loud. It invokes eastern formlessness, apparently, but that again is a tad essentialist.

Holiday

The later paintings of black rhomboids on grey fields are positively excessive by comparison.

I’m not sure that at the end of the day I was hugely impressed by her. Certainly I’m glad to have made her acquaintance, so to speak, and it’s always useful to get a wider sense of a period of art. But it didn’t feel, alas, like coming across a long lost friend.