Unpopular Cultureby Sherman Sam
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea,
East Sussex, England May 10–July 6, 2008
In stark contrast to Claydon’s efforts, the ceramicist Grayson Perry has worked with England’s Arts Council to curate an exhibition drawn from their collection. Operating in a manner like the nea in the United States, the Arts Council is a government-funded organisation that supports the arts. Its myriad activities include building a small collection since the 1960s that is loaned or toured to museums and other public venues across the country. No doubt this invitation was the result of Perry’s highly regarded The Charms of Lincolnshire (2006), which brought together objects from the county’s historical museums. The result was an eerie exhibition of craft and folk art punctuated by Perry’s hallmark painted vessels.
This time Perry has created something quite different in spirit. In stark contrast to the post-Sensation moment and Conceptual Pop attitude that currently prevails, the 2003 Turner Prize winner has selected 79 works from the '40s to the '80s that presents quite a contrasting view of British art. Photographs of people at work and play sit comfortably next to painterly, grey-green figurations and chunky abstract bronzes. Installed in the grey-walled galleries of the De La Warr Pavilion, the exhibition feels like the England of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (the social realist film based upon the book by Alan Silitoe) rather than that of Blair’s Cool Britannia. Even Martin Parr’s photographs are black and white silver bromide prints and very much unlike the BritPop in-your-face images that he is famous for today. In his text, Perry describes the painters as knowing “how to make a virtue of grey as only a Briton can.”
This is not to imply that Perry has brought together works of Social Realism; rather he has exposed a side of the collection—and British art—dominated not by big names but by “working” artists (e.g. David Hepher, Brian Robb, Margret Lovell). In terms of big international stars, it is the sculptors that stand out (Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi); as for the painters it is merely Frank Auerbach and Victor Pasmore, and even so, the latter’s contribution is an uncharacteristic, early moody, figurative piece. Major artists like Hockney, Bacon, Cragg and Freud—though represented in the Arts Council Collection—are notably absent here; neither are there the grander ideas of such artists, instead we see people sitting around and drinking in pubs or large families at prayer. It would appear that Perry has neither been swayed by names nor their ideas, instead a certain aesthetic or spirit applies. With its figurative sensibility, and lack of video works, there is a tranquil pace to the way this show unfolds. In this regard there is no better venue for this show to inaugurate its tour than the De La Warr, an Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff building of the 1930s.
Although Unpopular Culture could be described as a gloomy and dour affair, it is also a celebration of a certain “make-do” attitude that underlies this culture, one that Perry describes as an “attractive humility and elegance.” For this exhibition Perry has created two new pieces, a painted vase and a bronze sculpture. The former, Queen’s Bitter, seems to “nostalgically” evoke the post-war era by including photographs of his cross-dressing alter-ego, Claire, in a 1950ish outfit with headscarf. While Head of a Fallen Giant is a great black skull with a British flag across its forehead and nails through its pate, and emblazoned with symbols of Britain from the famous Routemaster buses to the Three Lions of the English crest. Although it could be construed as a riposte to Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, it is really inspired by the bronzes of Paolozzi and Turnbull. Together Perry’s two works feel like bookends to the show, positive and critical. The vase, a homage perhaps to a quieter, less unruly time, while the latter represents a more boisterous and perhaps richer era. This is a distinctly 20th century show; for Perry it is “perhaps a picture of British culture when life was slower and when, maybe, we were more reflective, more civic and more humane.”
Unpopular Culture is a subtle but in-your-face statement in the manner of Saltz’s call-to-arms, not just for artists putting on shows, but for organisers of exhibitions to consider that there may be more approaches than just recycling the same fashionable artists and clever ideas. It is also reminder to museum committees of the evolving contexts in which contemporary acquisitions will one day be regarded.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.