State of the nation: Grayson Perry on Brexit, Britishness and culture wars

CNN  — 

There are many different types of artist, but if you were going to distill them all into just two groups you could say that there is the interior artist – the one guided by nothing but their own dreams and visions – and the exterior artist, who looks at the culture around them and finds inspiration within it. Television presenter, transvestite, tapestry-weaver and ceramicist Grayson Perry is very much one of the latter.

It may have taken him 20 years to break into the public consciousness (his household name status confirmed by attending his 2003 Turner Prize win in a crinoline party frock), but ever since he’s been the closest thing Britain has to a truly public artist in the mold of Dali or Warhol.

Seemingly more at home on a comedy panel show than a panel discussion at MoMA, Perry has made the rare journey from the gallery space to living room. Of course, this wider fame has won him a few art world detractors, as typified by Tracey Emin’s sly dig about him being popular with the masses 2003. But Perry the provocateur seems to find this all quite amusing, even name checking the Emin incident in the foreword to his new show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, which is all about populism.

“Oh god yeah, I’m definitely a populist artist”, he proudly declared. “I make art for as wide an audience as possible. I’m interested in increasing the amount of people that come through the doors here.”

The show’s title, “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever,” could be seen as both a dig at the blockbuster exhibition culture so dominant in London and a self-effacing reference to Perry’s perception in his industry. But the man himself is open-minded about it’s meaning.

“The title of the show came about because it made me laugh really,” he says. “The art world struggles with popularity and populism, which has been brewing over the last few years as a current political force.”

What do these terms mean to him? Surely he – a fine artist in a dress – has little in common with the likes of Farage and Trump?

“Populism is the version of popular that other people don’t like,” he says. “It’s used as an insult. It’s like, ‘When loads of people like me, it’s popular. But when loads of people like you, it’s populism.’”

Time will tell how just how popular the show turns out to be, but it’s already generating considerable interest. Sitting next to Serpentine director and cultural sultan Hans Ulrich Obrist in front of a throng of press, Perry seems very much the celebrity.

Yet his work itself is deeply rooted in the everyday, depicting themes and subjects that wouldn’t usually make it into a major art show in a big city, such as the Brexit voters whose photos form the basis of the show’s centerpiece: two ceramic vases named “Matching Pair.”

“I call this part of the exhibition the mantelshelf of Britain,” Perry says, surveying his creations. “One vase reflects the likes, the emotions, the interests of the Leave voter, and the other the Remain voters. I asked them over social media to send me their photographs of things they liked about Britain and portraits, their favorite brands, figures from history and our popular imagination who stand for what they believe in.”

However for Perry, it’s the connections between the two vases, rather than the differences, that ring true.

“Interestingly, they’ve come out quite similar because they both chose blue as the dominant color, as well as many similar images as well … I haven’t labeled them, but you can work out which one’s which on closer examination. I think that reflects the layered identity we have as British people,” he says. “Brexit isn’t necessarily in the foreground. We’ve got many more identity issues when it comes to Brexit.”

When it comes to the bitter rifts of generation, location, race and gender that Brexit did it’s best to deepen, Perry is optimistic that they can be patched up – in the long-term at least.

 Grayson Perry at the press preview of "The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!" at the Serpentine Gallery

“I think in the heat around the referendum we saw this sort of new version of culture wars that happened in Britain. But I think it is not necessarily the headline of our identity – and it will subside. It is just around the Brexit debate and the fallout from that and then into the election,” he says.

“Brexit is still a hugely important issue, but I think as long as we address the underlying … grievances that motivated people around the debate, then hopefully the poison will be lanced.”

The show opens on the eve of the general election, a schedule clash that seems to suit his mirror-holding sense of chaos. How does he feel, hosting a major exhibition about British culture, on the eve of the most polarized election since the ’80s?

“I love opening my show on the eve of a general election. It’s perfect timing,” he cackles, before getting serious again. “Some of the issues involved in the election are in my show, and it creates a febrile atmosphere where people are interested in the state of the nation, and that’s something I’ve been interested in for a very long time.”

“Also there is that difficult lull between going to vote and the results coming in, a perfect time to come to the opening,” he adds, surely only half-joking.

“Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” is on at the Serpentine Gallery in London from June 8 to Sept. 10, 2017.