With these six enormous tapestries Grayson Perry – the country’s most loved transvestite potter – takes on class. He uses a highly traditional method to depict a hyper-modern world, exploring how upbringing can effect our sense of taste. Full of humour, intense detail and sumptuous colour the works are a modern take on William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. The rise and fall of Tom Rakewell in eighteenth century England becomes the trajectory of Tim Rakewell through the British social strata of today.
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters and The Agony in the Car Park show Tim’s mother and father in working class Sunderland. Referencing traditional religious paintings in their composition, they depict a workingmen’s club singer, a meat raffle and a girls night out, quotidian rituals taking on the significance of ancient allegorical art. Tim’s gentrification via education and a new girlfriend move us onto the next section, where the symbols of the chattering classes are dissected. In the accompanying television series – all in the best possible taste – Perry says that it is between the tribes of this middle class majority that style choices are most fraught and selfconcious. This anxiety is beautifully expressed by a woman moving into a ready furnished showhome on the aspirational King’s Hill Estate in order to avoid having to navigate the pitfalls of taste.
In Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, Tim moves from his lower middle class upbringing – a new build estate with a shiny Range Rover in every immaculate driveway- to the “sunlit uplands of the upper middle classes.” Here, abstract art on the wall depicts a cubist cafetiere, while the books on the bookcase have spines reading Art: A Force for Good and Jamie Oliver – the new God of social mobility – beams down from the heavens.
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal – in which Tim becomes rich by selling his digital start up company to Virgin – lays out the trappings and “knick-knackery” of the upper middle classes. Casually displaying cultural capital, muddy organic vegetables lie on a page of The Guardian. Recycling containers and drying terry-cloth nappies show off- as a woman Perry meets at a Tumbridge Wells dinner party puts it – “Green Bling,” Cath Kidson, Le Creuset and William Morris wallpaper provide the necessary subtle branding and a Penguin Classics mug reads Class Traitor by Chip E Prole.
Exposing the effort that goes into the effortlessness assemblage of a shabby chic aesthetic makes for great art. Perry’s eye for the details of how we display our status are spot on. When we move onto The Upper Class at Bay, the endangered tribe are shown in all their the disheveled grandeur, stately pilescrumbling down around them. The final scene has Tim killed in a car crash, surrounded by super-model wife, smashed up Ferrari and Hello expose. Behind him, the silhouette of a shopping centre rises up, signs for Toys ‘R’ us and Next like beacons in the darkness.
Like an anthropologist collecting clay pots and flint, he interrogates the trivial trappings of our lifestyles to find out who we really are. Utterly nonjudgmental but with scathing powers of observation, by his thread the signifiers we trade in but so carefully pretend not to notice are cleverly laid bare.