Thursday, 29 January 2015

Grayson Perry: Who are you?

My map to 'Who are you?' that I clutched all the way round the exhibits
A friend and I visited the National Portrait Gallery yesterday to explore Grayson Perry's exhibition 'Who are you?' I've been pondering this question all day and the answer is 'I'm not sure'.

Fourteen exhibits have been artfully displayed within a number of galleries that contain artwork on permanent show. This was a collaborative project with Channel 4 and was shown on television before Christmas 2014 and, as the leaflet explains, they 'are not primarily concerned with what the subjects look like' they are concerned with identity.

The first item is a self-portrait of Grayson Perry but unlike most portraits you don't get any idea of what his appearance might be like. This is because it is an intricate, visual mind-map in four large etchings of his experiences, anxieties and relationships. I found it so interesting I could have spent my entire visit absorbed by this one piece alone.

This is where the leaflet came in very handy because it too was a map, of the gallery, and for me it turned into a comfort blanket so at least I knew where I was even if I didn't know who I was. And funnily enough piece number two is called 'Comfort Blanket'.  It is an enormous tapestry that wouldn't look out of place in a Tudor palace and was designed to be reminiscent of a bank note with the Queen prominently displayed on the right hand side.

As we trailed through the galleries we stopped to look at the permanent collection of portraits of the great and the good and these were very much concerned with how the subjects were portrayed. There are a number of portraits of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, starting young but getting older and fatter but still recognisably the same person.

On we trailed visiting exhibit number three: Melanie, Georgina and Sarah looking glorious in their shiny glaze. I was particularly taken with 'The Ashford Hijab' (exhibit number six) but sadly I can't find a link to it to show you. I also enjoyed seeing the Suffragettes, a bust of Queen Mary and self portraits by the artist Henry Tonks who put fear into many an art student while he taught at the Slade School of Fine Art.

I was a bit stunned on entering room number 29 when I thought I was looking at a painting of Josef Stalin wearing a white uniform only to discover it was of Sir Frank Swettenham (1850-1946) by John Singer Sargent. I found the 'Memory Jar' (exhibit number eight) very poignant as it's concerned with the loss of memories as a result of dementia but I cheered up enormously when I ran into the portraits of the Brontë sisters by their brother Branwell which I have seen in reproduction but never in 'real life'.

I had trouble finding 'The Earl of Essex' (exhibit number 12) and my companion had to lead me to it so small was it and hidden in plain view in a cabinet. I was glad to see it and enjoyed its commentary on the quest for celebrity and instant fame. And the final piece is called 'The Deaf' and this was designed to look like a punk rock poster. It makes it clear that the deaf regard themselves as a distinct culture to be celebrated not a section of society suffering from a disability.

As someone who tends to stick to drawing and painting realistic scenes with the occasional foray into the abstract I'm impressed with the range of approaches Grayson Perry has employed in this exploration of what lies beneath the surface of appearances and the meaning of personal identity.

National Portrait Gallery: until 15 March 2015