To South Kensington tube station and then walk up Exhibition Road where it looks like the hoardings that have been covering up the building work going on inside the Victoria & Albert Museum are soon to be removed. It’ll be interesting to see just what’s revealed when the bandages do finally come off. I suppose there’s bound to be another café, gift shop, interactive education play area and suites of administrative offices but, hopefully, the architects will also have been able to squeeze in a little bit of extra exhibition space in which to lay out more of the museum’s expansive trove of higgledy-piggledy acquisitions. In the meantime, I carry on heading up north with the sun beating down on me all the way to the Serpentine Gallery, where there seems to be a small crowd gathered outside the entrance. Fortunately, by the time I arrive, I’m allowed to walk straight in to the exhibition but only because a couple of other people have exited and freed up a bit of space. There are tellers on the doors and such is the popularity of the current show that the staff outside are apparently having to control the numbers of people getting in to see the displays.
I have to say that I can’t ever remember this happening at the Serpentine before. So, what is the big attraction today? Well, the exhibition is entitled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! which was presumably meant to be a sort of vague, tongue-in-cheek, jokey, ironic, fake news, Po-Mo piece of jollity but could be proving to be correct, at least if the claim is limited to the Serpentine’s own specific attendance figures. And which of today’s artists would have the chutzpah and bold bravado to risk picking such a potentially hubristic title for his one-man show? Or should I say, one-girl show?
There, I’ve given the game away for, of course, it’s that tran again – the people’s potter and everyone’s favourite multi-media tart – the thinking man’s Tracy Emin: good old ubiquitous Grayson Perry. And when I say ubiquitous, I mean it for, such is the expansive appeal of this most eloquent and erudite of cheeky charmers, he seems to be everywhere all at the same time, whether it’s launching a new book, designing a new art house, fronting a TV series, or lecturing us all on the radio. It surely can’t be long before he’ll be starring in adverts for butter and soap, managing the England football team and leading the Brexit negotiations. And while he waits for those job offers to come through, he seems to be happily self-publicising himself by bouncing out of the gossip columns, apparently in attendance at every important party and pop-up throughout the land. With his pudding basin haircut and famous twinkling smile cracking through a face plastered in comic make-up, he rather remarkably seems to radiate an aura of good will and cheery bonhomie wherever he goes. It’s an effect heightened by his insistence on clutching a teddy bear to his heart as he flounces about in one of his collections of little-girl frocks, like a cross-dressing cross between Shirley Temple and Sebastian Flyte. That a man with such silly, affected and socially embarrassing stylistic sartorial tastes should have been taken to the nation’s bosom with quite such alacrity and apparently genuine warmth is either a testimony to the heroic, non-judgmental laissez faire liberalism of today’s permissive society or else an appalling celebration of its preening, vacuous inanity. Either way, it certainly says something about the state of the nation which, somewhat fittingly, is, as far as I can tell, the subject matter for Perry’s own artistic outpourings.
By which I mean that most of the ceramics and fabrics in his current show are decorated with a profusion of imagery and texts that reference all things contemporary, from depicting celebrities of the stature of Kate Middleton, Donald Trump and Joan Collins, to listing popularly exclusive brand names like Chanel, Dior and Gautier (sic) – these all being set alongside a chorus of character sketches representing various caricature members of the general public. Everything is presented in a sort of cartoon chaos which, I imagine, is designed to be read as a sort of up-to-date evolutionary take on a tradition that stretches back through satirists like Rowlandson to social commentators like Hogarth. Although Perry’s nature, and therefore his pen, seems a good deal more emollient and forgiving than that of his predecessors, which means that he’s content just to take snapshot recordings of society’s fads and foibles rather than offer up any moralistic critique. Although, having said that, I readily confess that I find it quite a struggle to keep my concentration when looking at his endless, overlapping collages, whether printed onto his pots, woven into his tapestries or cartooned into his notepads, so I may well be missing the moral message if indeed there is one to be found within his work. In fact, such seems to be the lack of any editorial control over any of his cornucopia of visual clutter, that looking into it strikes me as the visual equivalent of being stuck in a pub or party and being blasted by dozens of separate inane conversations all going on at the same time while competing juke boxes blare away, filling up any gaps in the background soundtrack.
Perry clearly has some very real ability as a ceramicist and graphic designer but his true genius undoubtedly lies in the area of media self-marketing and promotion which, fortunately for him, seem to be the skills, above all others, most necessary for achieving fame and fortune within today’s artworld. Though, hopefully, it won’t always be the case.
After all that visual noise, frankly it’s a bit of a relief to get out of the Gallery and back into the park from whence I retrace my walk back to the tube station. After a few stops and a quick change of lines I reach Bond Street where I exit and start my trundle southward to get to my first stop at Marlborough Fine Art. Here the abstracts of Tess Jaray definitely provide a calming antidote to the shrill shrieking style of Perry’s periphrastic pronouncements. Although I’m not sure that siting quite such a large number of her very similar variations on a very subtle theme is really such a good idea. While the famous old mantra about ‘less means more’ is quite correct, when it comes to contemplating the sensitive nuances contained within any individual work of Minimalist painting, bunching a load of them together only acts to negate the sentiment. And, as this display rather unfortunately confirms, the result of this kind of over exposure can result in a display where ‘more means less’.
Next on the itinerary is a rather lovely, sensible old-fashioned exhibition of works by one of the true masters of Modernism, Henri Matisse. The Bernard Jacobson Gallery has assembled a small selection of prints, sculptures and paintings that show the artist at his typical best and worst. Unlike his great rival Picasso, who had the most incredible natural facility for drawing, colouring and modelling, it seems to me that Matisse was forever struggling to set down the line in the right place, find the correct balance of shades and tones, and mould the unforgiving shapes into the correct arrangement of forms. As a result, the finished products can vary wildly between brilliant successes and very awkward failures, albeit that, on occasion, these latter mess-ups can sometimes fall into a further, separate category of their own – sort of happy accidents, redeemed by the naïve charm of their curious mis-composition. Well, maybe. There are a couple of line drawings here of reclining nudes here that are almost comically crass in the representation of their misshapen anatomy but just about everything else – from portrait heads to studio interiors, and from a bunch of flowers to a goldfish bowl – looks wonderfully simple and simply wonderful.
And so, finally, to the White Cube in Mason’s Yard for a display of paintings by Wayne Thiebaud. And while Chardin had his flowers and glasses, and Cezanne his bowls of apples, Thiebaud, being from the era of Pop Art, brought the still life study up-to-date by choosing subject matter from amongst the shelves of the patisserie, drug store and take-away joint. If his painterly technique is perhaps a little less sophisticated and refined than some of his eminent predecessors, then his use of smooth slabs of impasto layerings seem perfectly appropriate to capture the surface succulence of the selection of pies and burgers, cakes and confectionery he lays out here. Maybe a bit sugary sweet for some tastes, personally I thought it all rather delicious