Review of Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences at Manchester Art Gallery

The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry’s most recent work, is influenced by Hogarth’s 18th century series, A Rake’s Progress. Originally documenting the rise and fall of protagonist Tim Rakewell, Perry has altered the plot and applied the narrative to contemporary society, executed in a series of six 2m x 4m tapestries.

Whilst researching, the artist filmed All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, in which he travelled across England meeting a variety of people from a multitude of backgrounds. Inspired, Perry embroidered these influential characters into his tapestry forming Rakewell’s dysfunctional family, embedding the woven fabric with vibrant colours and subtle encryptions.

Through re-presenting recognised societal norms and familiar characters, Perry ensures an evocative audience reaction. There is an element of humour in his observations; they are relatable and relevant to modern day and are enhanced by the use of product placement. Items such as iPhones, cans of Red Bull and a Cath Kidston bag not only underline the class connotations we give to objects, but symbolise the varying aesthetic taste among classes.

Each tapestry is riddled with such cultural references, Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close (2012) nods to the “Nouveau Riche” with their Astroturf lawn, penchant for golf and appraisal of Jamie Oliver, “the god of social mobility.” The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal (2012) is quasi religious, referencing Carlo Crivelli, Matthias Grunewald and Robert Campin, through various symbols and use of triangular composition. This adds another layer of depth mixed with satire as we notice a character taking a selfie in the convex mirror. It is this immense detail which stresses the importance of iconography, in the work and in the world in which we live.

The finale #Lamentation, intended to be ironic and compelling is certainly successful. Rakewell, our anti-hero, acts as a reminder that death comes to us all, irrelevant of socio economics. However, our Western society also stresses that if death is witnessed it will be uploaded on to YouTube, as demonstrated by the onlookers. Rakewell’s death enforces our inevitability, which instils a resounding sense of universality, if expressed only in 140 characters.

Whilst viewing the exhibition a discussion sparked between myself and two elderly ladies, both from different backgrounds. That alone was testament to the message of Perry’s work; to highlight that although our differences may be small, when overcome the impact can be colossal.

Stephanie Bell

Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences, 24 October until 2 February, Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL.

Image: The Agony in the Car Park, 2012, Grayson Perry. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London and British Council. © Grayson Perry. Photography © Stephen White Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, The Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from AlixPartners.