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.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
Show Hide image

Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496