Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Grayson Perry at Temple Newsam House

If you have not been there it’s well worth a trip to Temple Newsam House. It’s just off the York Road about 20 minutes by bus from Leeds city centre. (Number 10 bus from Infirmary Street, (just off City Square) drops you off right outside) However you do have to pay to go in, it cost me £7 for a joint ticket to the house and the farm, but I wanted to draw some pigs so had other things to do when I was there. The house is set in a wonderful Capability Brown designed landscape, so it’s also a great place to go walking.
Temple Newsam house is being used to exhibit Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ Click
These large scale tapestries are done directly from drawings constructed using computer software very similar to a cross between Photoshop and Illustrator.
What I found most interesting about the show was first of all the curation. The tapestries are housed amongst the House’s permanent collection of Classical paintings and antique ceramics, tapestries and furniture. By doing this, an interesting dialogue is created between Perry’s desire to reference Hogarth and other ‘Classical’ artists and art works from the periods he is trying to invoke and the works of art within the house. For instance in one room there is some old Leeds pottery with scenes from the Prodigal Son, another narrative of a life gone wrong.  
Leeds Pottery scene from the Prodigal Son series

In another room there is a large Chinese screen, its composition illustrating a narrative scene from the Dream of Red Chambers, a famous Qing dynasty novel. The border, which incorporates vases of flowers, utensils and traditional Taoist symbols, is guarded by an inner dragon pattern surround and an outer band of lotus motifs, the whole composition, including the border being a reminder of how within narrative images you often need to flatten the compositional space in order to allow different actions to be easily seen. The fact that this image is carved in low reverse relief and then coloured, making the screen a very interesting comparison to Perry’s woven images.  
Really bad photograph of the Chinese screen

They are also of course showing Hogarth’s original ‘Rakes Progress’ prints, so you can compare how inventive Perry is in relation to the original 18th century prints.  
Hogarth Rake's Progress

Perry references several classical artists and in particular takes ideas from religious paintings. 
Masaccio, Expulsion from Eden

Detail from The Vanity of Small Differences

The tragedy of life is a continuing fact of the human condition and by looking back at how artists from different periods and times have depicted this we can learn a lot about how to pose or organise complex images of people interacting together. In a recent post I mentioned that this summer I had been travelling around Belgium looking at Flemish painters from the 15th and 16th century, I did several drawings when there trying to clarify how certain compositions can be used to help link and yet separate out various different areas for action. I’m now employing some of these ideas back in my studio.  As artists we are part of a long ongoing tradition and I would always recommend looking as much at historical practices as contemporary ones. In fact looking too much at what is happening now can make it harder to determine what your own work is about, but when you look at art within a much longer timeframe, certain issues will always re-occur and you can sift out what it is you are really trying to deal with. Bill Viola is a good artist to look at in this respect. Even though he mainly uses video, his approach to his subject is heavily dependent on his knowledge of Renaissance painting.

The other issue for me was the process. Perry had undertaken extensive research. This was partly photographic and partly hand drawn. (Of course there was the filmed element, but I wasn’t sure how much was due to him and how much the work of the film producer/director. They are though screening the original programs so you can sit and watch if you missed them first time round). It was clear that he went out and talked to people, he engaged them directly in his project. Whilst getting engaged with his subject he was always taking photographs, so I presume he built up an extensive archive of images to work from. The second stage appeared to be done in notebooks, lots of drawings being used to construct ‘compositions’ and ideas for the tapestries. 

Grayson Perry notebook pages

The final stage was to work up the more finished images, have them scanned into a computer and then further refined using specialist computer software. You could say that the final tapestries are in effect coloured in drawings.  I have always been interested in comic-book art and I found another parallel here. Perry’s methods are very similar to the way graphic novel pages are constructed. Usually starting with hand drawn images, these are then scanned into Photoshop and clarified / coloured and outputted for print within the computer environment. Again this is something I’ve been doing myself recently, a set of cards I have just had printed started life as pencil drawings and were eventually coloured in PhotoShop. The colour separations I used were based on some silk-screen prints I did last year, which is a reminder of how working through different technologies opens out the decision making process.
Whatever you might think of the final images, the process is a powerful one and relies on engaging directly with ‘real-life’ and issues that are important to our society.  His easy grasp of the relationship between hand drawing, ancient weaving techniques and the use of computer software is also a very useful lesson in using whatever tools are available to us and not discounting them because they are too old or too new.

Find images and texts taken from the same exhibition when it was in Birmingham here.

Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures more

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