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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, July 26, 2008
    By no means grey

    Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream by David Helpher, the first image which greets visitors to Grayson Perry's Unpopular Culture exhibition at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, and a typically engaging example of what's on offer.

    It's not a photograph, it's a painting, you discover when you see it close up. It's a record of what Britain began to look like in the years following the Second World War, and still looks like in many places, and it celebrates its subject with a gentle beauty.

    I spent an enjoyable afternoon at The Harris yesterday, looking at the originals of works I'd already got to know a bit through reading Perry's exhibition catalogue, appreciating his selection of photographs, figurative paintings and sculptures which offer 'a picture of British culture when life was slower and when, maybe, we were more reflective, more civic, and more humane', as he puts it.

    Perhaps the selection is as much confirmation that Perry himself is a reflective, civic, and humane artist. Unpopular Culture requires the viewer to work pretty hard to appreciate what's on display - like you have to do for instance when facing David Helpher's tower block, trying to make yourself get beyond the initial negative response to a sight which convention has always told you to ridicule or revile, and like you have to do with the many modernist sculptures which one cruel reviewer described as 'grim bronze turds'.

    Perry's chosen artists 'make a virtue of grey as only a Briton can', he writes, but he has selected them for 'an attractive humility and elegance... which I wish to celebrate'. The sculptures, he says, he principally associates with 'childhood trips to concrete new towns and their architecture of catastrophic optimism. Each bronze is to me an evocation of a guano-spattered plinth on a windswept shopping centre. It was modern art in a public place with no agenda of regeneration.'

    A photo by Tish Murtha from her series Youth Unemployment in the West End of Newcastle, 1980-81 shows youths playing in a derelict tenement. The obvious response to this stark monochrome print would be dismay, we might categorise these young people's lives in terms of boredom or pointlessness. But the mood of Perry's collection makes you look again.

    Here, two boys jump fifteen feet from a frameless window onto a stack of five old mattresses. Three younger boys are enjoying a privileged vantage-point from a broken wall they've scrambled to, ten feet up. Another boy is climbing up that wall, and a cluster of other children, boys and girls, stand below, rapt with attention at the extemporized circus show before them. Entering the picture, left, is a boy carrying a ventriloquist's dummy which perhaps he has salvaged from an empty property, or maybe is his personal pride and joy. Once the high-jumping has ended perhaps the crowd will be treated to the ventriloquist's act.

    I learned a lot by spending time with that picture. There is no boredom here. In the debris which is these youngsters' playground there is innovation and playfulness. Look more closely, look again: it's by no means grey, unpopular culture.