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Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ at BMAG

The Vanity of Small Differences opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery on Feb 13th, amid a flurry of excitement. I went along to the opening to take a look at this intriguing set of tapestries by Grayson Perry, which have been touring the country over the last several months, attracting plenty of attention.

Grayson Perry is a famous artist, probably one of the most famous British artists. In the guise of his flamboyant alter ego, Clare, he is instantly recognisable. I have seen, and enjoyed, some of his work from the 80s and 90s before. This mainly takes the shape of highly decorative ceramics (an example can be seen in BMAG’s permanent collection here) and deals with themes of identity, sexuality, gender, and self-discovery. Since the early 2000s, though, Perry has produced works of sharp and insightful social commentary, and this is where The Vanity of Small Differences fits in. I was less familiar with this aspect of Perry’s work, and keen to explore.

The Vanity of Small Differences (the title references the mainly middle class obsession with individuality) is about people; it is a commentary about and of contemporary Britain. It is also the tale of a journey. This set of six tapestries not only tells the story of their hero’s journey, they also tell the story of Perry’s journey in researching a producing this intriguing artwork.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

Perry designed thetapestries after working on a (BAFTA nominated) documentary series with Channel 4, All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (2012). In it, Perry explored how ideas of social class and taste and inextricably linked in British culture. He was fascinated by the choices that people from different backgrounds made in ‘curating their possessions’, and the different messages that this transmits. Perry observed that taste is a particularly British sensitivity, because ideas about taste are linked to a class system that is still evidently very much alive in our culture. Perry knew that he wanted to create art based on the research he did while working on his documentary, and it is possible to hear the voices of the people he visited and interviewed, from the estates of post-industrial Sunderland to the estates of Cotswold gentry, coming through in the text and images.

All six tapestries follow Perry’s hero, Tim Rakewell, who is based on Tom Rakewell, the main character in Hogarth’s series of moral paintings, The Rake’s Progress. Perry cites Hogarth as a major influence on his work, and it is easy to see the parallels between Tim and Tom. Hogarth’s character inherits a fortune from his father, only to fritter it away on a life of extravagance and debauchery. In the end he can be seen naked and crazed in the poor house. Similarly, as you make your way around The Vanity of Small Differences, you watch at Tim rises to fortune and fame, climbing to the precarious precipice of the slippery social ladder. From ginger baby competing with his mother’s mobile in The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, we watch as Tim achieves success and great wealth, eventually transforming into a new money gentleman of leisure. Strolling in the grounds of his Cotswolds mansion, he watches as red dogs, bearing the words ‘tax’, ‘social change’, ‘upkeep’, and ‘fuel bills’, tear down a stag, clad in patched-up tweed, representing the aristocracy, in The Upper Class at Bay. Finally, in #Lamentation, Tim meets a grizzly and inglorious end, lying bloodstained and half-naked in the street, after wrapping his red Ferrari around a lamppost. We see how he could never really escape his roots, as the text proclaims, ‘All he said to me was “Mother”. All that money and he dies in the gutter.’ Following the tapestries around the room at BMAG, I felt genuinely wrapped up in Tim’s story. The larger than life caricatures are undoubtedly amusing, though in a gentle and inoffensive way, and this only adds to the richness of the story, bringing Tim’s tale vividly to life.

Walking into this exhibition space for the first time was like getting a slap round the face; the tapestries are so impressive, so vibrantly coloured, and so intricate. They have irresistible appeal, drawing you in closer in order to pick out every detail, to avoid missing anything. Impressive though they are from a distance, it is only once you get in close that you start to fully appreciate the intertwining strands of narrative and symbolism that run through the set, following the trail scrawly text from one scene to the next as it narrates Tim’s story in different voices. I defy anyone not to find some witty detail in each of the tapestries that provokes grin to spread across their face, from the pug sitting in the left hand corner of The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, to a tomato-faced Jamie Oliver cast as the ‘god of social mobility’, grinning down from the heavens in Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, or the boney-fingered angel/business partner announcing Tim’s new found mega-wealth in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

For me, as a student of Renaissance art, this exhibition was full of amusing moments, as I looked out for the witty references to Renaissance art in each scene. As their intelligently playful names suggest, each tapestry draws on one or more Renaissance or old master paintings, and in each one, Perry plays around with Renaissance themes and iconography. The connection with 14th and 15th century religious art, he says, was used to lend moral weight to Tim’s story, as well as providing recognizable Biblical themes. The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, for example, mirrors Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c. 1425). The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal draws on three different paintings of the Annunciation, by Carlo Crivelli, Matthias Grunewald, and Robert Campin, and the convex mirror on the wall, replicating the scene from another angle, is reminiscent of the one found in the famous Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, a 14th century display of status. #Lamentation was inspired by a painting of the same name by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1460), but Perry has substituted the skull at the bottom of that picture with a smashed smart phone in this.

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

It seems right that this artwork should have taken the form of a set of tapestries. Historically, tapestries acted as decorative objects that displayed the wealth of their owners, owing to the great expense and skill involved in their production. This links in nicely to the main themes of The Vanity of Small Differences, class and taste. Tapestries were also mobile, and were taken with their owners from home to home, like movable instant decoration. Mirroring that, this set, which Perry has gifted to the Arts Council Collection and the British Council, are destined for a nomadic existence. They can, as they have done already, travel from place to place, art venue to art venue. Unlike the historical tapestries of the very wealthy, these will be seen by all sorts of people, the length and breadth of the country.

I found Perry’s tapestries extravagant and enthralling, and the story woven into them thoughtful and entertaining. I also really enjoyed this exhibition, I’ve been three times already, and will go again. Each time I’ve visited the exhibition space has been packed with people of all backgrounds, busily picking out little details. I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen The Vanity of Small Differences to go to BMAG for a peek. I also highly recommend investing in the exhibition catalogue, which is beautiful and full of interesting insights into Perry’s research and the processes behind producing an artwork like this.

The exhibition is totally free, and open daily until 11 May 2014. For more information visit here.


You can read more from me, and find out about a plethora of arts and cultural events across Birmingham, over at Polaroids & Polar Bears.




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Review of ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. By Jamie Edwards

As a Renaissance man (my work focuses on Pieter Bruegel the Elder), I’m unashamed to admit that I just don’t “get” Damien Hirst. As an entrepreneur and businessman, credit where credit’s due. But with regards the art I’ve never really managed to think objectively about Hirst’s stuff. I guess that I’ve just grown accustomed to looking at fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art, meaning that a pickled animal simply jars with my expectations of what “art” is supposed to be all about.

I don’t take my uneasiness about Hirst to the same extreme as others have done, however. Hirst’s art divides opinion. Although some admire Hirst’s maverick personality and his avant-garde critique of conventional notions and narratives of what art is and when art existed, in others Hirst’s art arouses frank indignation. Julian Spalding scathingly described Hirst’s art as ‘the sub-prime of the art world’, adding ‘It’s often been proposed, seriously, that Damien Hirst is a greater artist than Michelangelo because he had the idea for a shark in a tank whereas Michelangelo didn’t have the idea for his David. … [but] what separates Michelangelo from Hirst is that Michelangelo was an artist and Hirst isn’t.’ ( The Independant 27th March, 2012) In my view, it’s exactly this kind of haughty presumption to make value judgements that has alienated most from the art world and should be avoided. Art and its appreciation is a subjective thing, and I don’t think that experts or critics should prescribe a view, especially one as extreme as Spalding’s.

I’ve always tried to be mindful that when it comes to art, one size really doesn’t fit all. I try to avoid judging art according to fixed, immovable categories such as “art” or “not art”, “artist” and “non-artist” etc.; as much as I don’t get Hirst, I am perfectly happy for others to get it. Just as much as people would be more than entitled to say they don’t get the appeal of Bruegel.  So, inasmuch as my own research must have prejudicially skewed my opinion of Hirst, I reckon we should just accept that there can be different kinds of art that don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Well, I decided to put this theory to the test when, for the first time ever, I took myself off with the sole intention of seeing a Hirst exhibition, at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. The Hirsts went on show here on October 6th as part of ARTIST ROOMS on tour, an initiative sponsored by the Art Fund that sees important contemporary artworks by influential artists being shown in galleries across the UK. Putting Hirst to one side momentarily, I really do think that this collaborative initiative should be praised for endeavoring to make the contemporary art world, which is usually very Londoncentric, seem that bit more relevant on a National scale. Hirst rarely exhibits outside of major cities and since his name will probably draw crowds and increase footfall at Walsall gallery, this can only be praised.

When it comes to the exhibition itself, though, I was initially disappointed to find myself confronted with Hirst’s face, twice(!), before I even got to see any of the art. Now I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with Hirst’s face, but these portraits—one of which shows Hirst looking rather pleased with himself in front of his Zebra in formaldehyde, inexplicably titled The incredible journey (2008) and worth a fortune, I guessseemed to confirm one of my preconceptions about Hirst: ego and celebrity coming before art.

Two portraits of Hirst hanging outside the exhibition rooms at Walsall Gallery

Perhaps overly-cynical, but it got on my nerves nonetheless.

Mild irritation ensued inside, since the very first thing I saw was one of those animals suspended in chemical preservatives, this time the Sheep titled (more explicably this time) Away from the Flock (1994). There seems to be no real justification for plonking this in the middle of the Main Hall, except for the fact that the formaldehyde specimens are easily Hirst’s most recognisable. And controversial! Again, another one of my preconceptions seemed to have been confirmed: controversy and the need to shock coming before art.

‘Away from the Flock’ inside the Main Hall. Above, ‘beautiful c painting’

My attempt to maintain an unequivocal position seemed to be proving untenable. Quickly, I was veering off into Spalding’s realm…

View of room showing: ‘The Pharmacist’s Creed’ and ‘Pharmacy Wallpaper’ (left); ‘Monument to the Living and the Dead’ (right)

OK”, I thought, “so I don’t get the animals in tanks thing, move on”. And to my surprise I actually found some of the stuff thought-provoking and even uplifting. The exhibition’s highlight and its most successful room is undoubtedly the one housing the Controlled Substances Key Painting (1994), Monument to the Living and the Dead (2006) and The Pharmacist’s Creed (1997-98), the latter of which is hanged against Hirst’s Pharmacy Wallpaper (2004). Forgetting about “meaning” for a moment, this room is simply a nice space to be in. Perhaps it’s the colourfulness of the works.. the brightness of the lighting… or the scarcity of the exhibits (both in terms of number and imagery). Not sure, but I liked the feel of this particular gathering. It was a bit of “Eureka!” moment for me and I suddenly understood what people meant when I’ve heard them say that Mark Rothko’s canvases make them “feel” a particular way.

Moving on though as we inevitably do to the murkier business of “meaning”, the exhibition’s interpretation told me that these works all intervene on the issue of life, death, faith and belief, and suggest that modern medicine has usurped God’s spiritual benevolence. In our increasingly secular society we apparently–we are told–habitually place our faith and hope for life in science instead of the Divine (whether that’s good or bad, I’m undecided and I suspect Hirst is, too). The Monument meanwhile frames and contextualises the whole of the room. Showing real butterflies stuck to gloss on canvas, suspended as though frozen in flight, this collage actually harkens back, conceptually, to momento mori iconography,reminding us (in much the same way that skulls in older art do)  that life is transient and fleeting. Altogether, this room struck me as being actually quite clever, and I hadn’t really considered Hirst’s indebtedness to iconographic conventions before. “Perhaps there’s more to Hirst”, I thought.

The above mentioned room even helped me to make sense of the Gallery’s newfangled Art and Religion room. Usually, this room, with its plain walls, displays some of the older art from the permanent collection, including two (sumptuous) sheets from an illuminated manuscript made in the 1300s. When I first stepped into this room, I assumed that the wallpaper now surprisingly adorning the walls was a rather eccentric renovation. It turns out, of course, that it’s the Pharmacy Wallpaper again, and knowing that, the reasoning behind juxtaposing Hirst with fourteenth-century illuminations from a Book of Hours becomes clearer.

All very interesting. But this show was making me vacillate. Was I now becoming pro-Hirst? Do I get it, or not?

I returned to Away from the Flock and read the label this time. A play on the conventional Agnus Dei iconography, this installation(? Sculpture? Readymade?… whatever) supposedly subverts the conventional associations of the Lamb of God by representing the sacrifice of life for the sake of art. Hmm.  Maybe? But I’m just not sure about this one and I still think that Away from the Flock really is arbitrarily positioned in the show simply because of its fame. (This isn’t, by the way, a value judgement, and the tank with sheep is in fact a rather fascinating object. But I just don’t find some of the interpretation offered in this show very convincing…)

Hirst’s spin paintings are represented by the beautiful c painting (1996). Apparently, this and Hirst’s other spin paintings challenge the idea that “high” or “fine art” requires the direct intervention of the artist’s hand. Spin paintings are made by mounting the canvas onto a revolving turntable and pouring paint onto the spinning support. You or I could do this, and the point is indeed to show that anybody, a child or fully-fledged artist, can produce something legitimately describable as a work of art. However, I don’t think that these psychedelic tondi can really make claims on behalf of the democratising and equalising potential of art, since it’s precisely because they are Hirsts that justifies their display in the gallery. I doubt whether Tom, Dick or Harry’s spin paintings would make it onto the gallery wall. The spin paintings therefore purport to essay against the notion of the virtuoso artist-author, but in the end, the institutions of art actually render them complicit in the cult of the artist. Indeed, the exhibition’s curator was apparently aware of the spin paintings’ tenuousness, since it’s hung high above the entrance door where it can easily be missed. The beautiful c painting neither has any thematic justification for its inclusion, since it in no way relates to the themes of life, death and faith that provide the main concept linking Hirst’s art to the permanent collection at Walsall.

A glimpse of ‘beautiful c painting’ from a stairwell

In all, I reckon it’s well worth seeing the Hirsts while they are in Walsall. Seldom is such a big name shown in such “provincial parts”. And the show is successful insofar as it provokes all kinds of interesting comparisons and analogies, of the like that have certainly altered my perceptions of Hirst and some of his art. A good exhibition, I think, should always make you challenge your own presumptions, and this does.

ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst runs at Walsall till 27th October 2013. New Art Gallery Walsall, Gallery Sq, Walsall, WS2 8LG. Open Tue to Sat 10am-5pm, and Sundays 12-4pm. Admission Free.

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Charlotte Bagwell reviews Vanley Burke, By The Rivers Of Birminam, at the MAC

Vanley Burke is an artist who has been documenting the diversity and cosmopolitan characteristics of Birmingham city for almost 50 years. This is why it is fitting that, as part of the MAC’s 50th birthday celebrations, they have staged a retrospective of Burke’s work, By The Rivers Of Birminam, honouring the photographs he has taken in the last half century. Curated by Lynda Morris, many of the images included were taken in the Cannon Hill Park and Handsworth areas of Birmingham, highlighting Burke’s ties with the city, and making this an exhibition where Birmingham people are honestly documented.  Burke was prominent in the representation of the African-Caribbean community at a time when mass media portrayed this community in a very negative light, and this rebalancing of damaging thoughts is observable in this exhibition.

Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951, and was raised by his aunt while his parents moved to the UK in order to start a new life for their family. For his tenth birthday they sent him a camera, and he became hooked on photography. In 1965 he moved to the UK, and by 1967 he was consciously documenting the lives of the African-Caribbean people in his neighbourhood to display their life and struggles after leaving their native homelands.

As part of Burke’s contesting of media portrayals of the Afro-Caribbean community there are consciously few photographs depicting integration with the oppressive white community. There is, however, a number of images showing the connection with the Asian people living in Birmingham, highlighting the support minority that groups gave to one another during times of repression.

Saying this, there is a number of images showing the bridging between Jamaican heritage and modern British life, such as the photograph Velrose, Cannon Hill Park 1972, which depicts a woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage in thoroughly a 1970’s British fashion.  The themes of assimilation are also heightened by the use of objects, taken from the community and displayed in cabinets in the exhibition space. These ornaments however, are not displayed to the best of their ability, and are one of the few shortcomings of the exhibition.

The decision to use black and white photography over colour, especially in recent photographs gives continuity to the exhibition, but also highlights race differences between social groups. This was possibly done in order to show isolation from each another, and to enhance the theme of separate communities, rather than one integrated society. This is also highlighted by the newspaper extracts that accompany the exhibition, with the headlines regarding immigration and Afro-Caribbean people clearly showing the negativity that Burke has spent his career refuting.

Overall, By The Rivers Of Birminam is an exhibition that displays the best of Vanley Burke’s work over his lifetime, and clearly displays its core themes of racial relations and the changing nature of culture.  The people represented in this exhibition form part of the diverse and cosmopolitan city Birmingham is today.

By the Rivers of Birminam runs from Sat 22 September- Sun 18 November at mac Birmingham, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH, free entry


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