Portrait of the artist as curator

Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection.


A question: what links the following three individuals? Hans Ulrich Obrist. Daniel Birnbaum. Matthew Higgs. I'll give you a clue, it's what all three do for a living. On the tip of your tongue, right? I'll put you out of your misery: they're curators. The three most influential curators in the world, in fact, according to Art Review's 2009 "Power 100" list.

Obrist,"co-director of exhibitions" at the Serpentine Gallery (among many, many other things), actually topped the list. The most powerful figure in international art. And you didn't recognise his name.

There's a reason for that. Like cinematography, set design, or even sub-editing, curation is a noble profession, defined by craft and hard work rather than celebrity, utterly lacking in the household names that populate apparently more glamorous (but arguably no more creative) career paths in "the arts". A truism which means that my immediate reaction, when confronted by a project such as "Unpopular Culture: Grayson Perry Selects from the Arts Council Collection", which opened at Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery this time last week, is one of suspicion and cynicism.

"Less recognised [by the international art scene] is Perry's role as a curator," the exhibition literature announces proudly. "This exhibition highlights this recent aspect of Perry's practice."

Perhaps. Does a single exhibition ("The Charms of Lincolnshire" in 2006) a curator make, though, just because he's a Turner Prize-winning artist? Does the world think of George Clooney as an actor/screenwriter just because he co-wrote (as well as directed and starred in) Good Night, and Good Luck?

Like the American constitution, visual art invariably benefits, as does most culture, from a separation of powers -- from artists working with curators working with gallerists, all experts in their field, to construct exhibitions. Which does mean that when those categories become blurred, there is a risk that something might be lost.


"Taste on the line"

This is the case, I fear, with "Unpopular Culture". Physically winding its way around Queen's Bitter and Head of a Fallen Giant, two pieces Perry made in response to the work on display (this a curious paradox, I think), it feels less like a collection of work in its own right than it does a sustained reflection on the potter's processes and interpretations, an almost biographical account of his relationship with 20th-century British art.

So, a Tony Ray-Jones photograph, Brighton Beach, 1967, becomes something that "very much reminds me of family days at Southend or Clacton . . . I could be the little boy on the breakwater in the cardigan." And a complex, disturbing piece by Jack Smith, After the Meal, is accompanied by an altogether reductive caption: "When looking at this painting, I feel I take on the viewpoint of a working-class patriarch."

The problem might have been partly sidestepped, of course, had Perry been more willing to adopt the anonymous stance of the curator even to a partial extent. He isn't. At all. Mischievous little references to his own experiments with individuality -- photographs of Sixties and Seventies transvestites, more complex depictions of transformation (such as Ray-Jones's Blackpool, 1968, which features a couple seemingly melting into a gaudy neon attraction), a number of twisting Paolozzi, Caro and Elizabeth Frink brass sculptures frozen in the middle of an act of metamorphosis -- these are fair enough. Continuous attempts to entrench one's working-class credentials with references to the Kitchen Sink School and so on, perhaps less so.

Certainly not fair enough is the way an Arts Council video detailing how Perry came up with his curatorial ideas booms out over the second half of the exhibition, obliterating one's opportunity to appreciate a magnificent Frank Auerbach. Perry looms over "Unpopular Culture" -- hardly surprising, considering that shameless displays of his own identity have always been at the heart of his work.

That irritating video also offers a solution to the problem, however. "Here is my taste on the line . . . It's more interesting what I leave out than what I leave in," he explains at one point. "I don't know if it's all mixed up in my nostalgia . . . In a way, I've edited [the collection] to reflect how I see the period between 1940 and 1980."

This is an exhibition about choice, rather than curation. About mischievous subjectivity, rather than formal dexterity. The biggest joke of all being that, behind Perry's highly characteristic and self-focused choices is the desire to evoke a period when, "unlike today . . . stories about art did not feature daily in the broadsheets or contemporary artists crop up frequently in gossip columns".

Framed in this way, the show is considerably more successful. And its simple, personal structure ensures that visitors can enjoy its varied pleasures without Grayson getting too much in the way: a peculiarly elegant Barbara Hepworth -- Spring, say -- or Edward Burra's "Winter", like a surreal watercolour take on thermal imaging, or a couple of hilarious Martin Parr photographs. Yet if I were a professional curator working for the Arts Council, I'd be a little irritated by the way this eccentric collection is being advertised.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State