Review of Who Are You? Grayson Perry, National Portrait Gallery

Review of Who Are You? Grayson Perry, National Portrait Gallery

Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry presents a provocative and fascinating new exhibition which makes us question identity in modern day Britain. Perry has become a celebrity on the modern art scene, regularly presenting a refreshingly subversive view of British life. In his latest exhibition, 14 portraits of individuals, families and groups, which represent many different aspects of modern day Britain, including a disgraced politician, a young female-to-male transsexual, Northern Ireland Loyalist marchers and X-Factor contestant Rylan Clark, occupy the Gallery’s nineteenth and 20th century rooms on Floor 1.

The new exhibition is entitled Who Are You?, however it could easily be titled Who We Are, as it provides a very realistic portrait of what Britain is today. This image of Britain as it is today, which focuses on race, gender and sexuality, offers a very different picture of Britain to that which adorns the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. The brass statuette of Alex, a young black female to male transsexual, is displayed in a room full of austere portraits of colonial explorers.

The portraits of elderly soldiers and generals, which represent the “white, male and stale” of a more repressive age seem a world away from Perry’s exciting and diverse art. The effect is similar to that of having Jackson Pollock or Damien Hirst being allowed to run riot in an old fashioned Victorian drawing room. While Perry has designed some of the exhibits in this refreshingly modern style, other modern day celebrities are given the opposite treatment. Rylan Clark, the X Factor contestant who represents our reality TV addicted modern culture, is depicted as the Earl of Essex, in a porcelain miniature. This portrait depicts a Rylan who looks as if he inhabits the Shakespearean age of dandies and poets, as he stares out from behind a silk ruff.

The portraiture of the exhibition appears to embody the essence of each person who was interviewed and studied by Perry. The Memory Jar depicts a demon slicing into the memories of Alzheimer’s sufferer Christopher Devas creating an uncomfortable image for the viewer. The statuette of Alex, shows him as a miniature Peter Pan figure, rising from a troubled past and being re-born in a brand new identity. Identity can change and influence our lives for the better and this provides one of the central themes of this exhibition. The intricate portrait of the Ashford Hijab depicts a young mum who has converted to Islam clearly shows us an individual on the road to recovery. Like Alex, its subject has radically changed her previous life, dominated by booze and shopping, to pursue a more spiritual way of life.

The Channel 4 TV series which has accompanied the Who Are You? exhibition featured a revealing interview with Chris Huhne following his release from prison after the speeding points scandal. Perry seems frustrated during the interview about Huhne’s apparent lack of vulnerability and remorse – he decides to address these missing aspects of Huhne’s outward demeanour by portraying him as a smashed vase which is then pieced back together. The result is possibly the artist’s comment also on the fickle world of politics and the fracturing of an outdated political system. Who Are You? succeeds in providing social commentary on how Britain has progressed as well as creating an original and visually stunning exhibition.

Bryony Lanham

Who Are You? Grayson Perry, until 15 March 2014, National Portrait Gallery. For more information visit

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1. Grayson Perry, The Huhne Vase, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London © Grayson Perry, Copyright: Grayson Perry.