Art review: Grayson Perry at the British Museum

The Turner Prize-winning artist takes pleasure in his own skill.

"Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" is now showing at the British Museum. When I visited, a few weeks after its opening, the gloriously gaudy pots of the wonderfully camp and kitschy transvestite artist Perry, shown alongside works from the past, were still turning heads

Turner Prize winner Perry has, in this compact but memorable exhibition, juxtaposed his seductive ceramics, tapestries and metal-works alongside similar items from the British Museum's permanent collection. Perry's objets, with their tutti-frutti colours, seem to light up the dusty exhibits placed next to them, breathing new life into old bones.

Perry is obsessive about the craft involved in the production of his work, something unusual amongst recent Turner Prize artists. In one sense, then, this show is a celebration of Perry's pleasure in his own skill. Or, as the excellent and well-illustrated catalogue says, "The Unknown Craftsman is an artist in the service of his religion, his master, his tribe, his tradition."

Tomb Guardian, a glazed green and white Perry ceramic from 2011, is placed, in its glass case, next to a tapestry doll from Peru (c900-1430). The latter piece served, in its time, as a totemic figure to warn and protect its owner, its wide-awake hand-stitched eyes and frowning slit-like mouth shamanistic talismans of spiritual power. Perry's modern-day equivalent is the glazed ceramic, a grotesque demonic figure with arms raised in warning, the tip of its erect phallus a second demonic head, complete with horns.

Perry first visited the Museum as a six year old, and now, forty-odd years later, he is staging an exhibition here centred on a detailed model ship. "Is my unconscious leading me to play out some elaborate act of catharsis using an institution?" he muses. The large cast-iron model ship he has made for this show is also a tomb of sorts, an iron ship ready to sail into the afterlife, one inspired by the original Egyptian models or the ship burials like that uncovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1931. It is also serves as a pun, a craft for the craftsman. Hung with casts of the fruits of the labours of craftsmen and carrying symbolic blood, sweat and tears stored in glass phials strung about the ship's masts, the central reliquary is symbolic of all tools, being a large flint axe head a quarter-million years old. This is, for Perry, a mystical object: "Holding such a tool in my hand and feeling its fit was my most moving memory of my pilgrimage through the stores of this great institution. This whole exhibition rotates around this humble stone."

Closest to Perry's heart among all the objects on show is Alan Measles, a fifty-year-old teddy bear that has belonged to the artist since birth, and which was, the artist tells us, "'the benign director of my childhood imaginary world". The battered teddy, in his faded cardy, inspired the gold-glazed ceramic that stands next to it: Prehistoric Gold Pubic Alan Dogu, from 2007. Nearby is a furniture fitting carved in the form of the god Bes, from ancient Egypt. "If Alan Measles had been around in ancient Egypt he would have hung around with Bes," Perry assures us.

The Frivolous Now, a large ceramic vase from 2011, is as good an example as any of Perry's ability to chronicle contemporary life, with wit, sentiment and perception, but that also has roots in the past. At first glance the lettering and images that cover its surface bring to mind the lead-glazed earthenware pieces of potter Thomas Toft, a celebrated artist-craftsman from the late 1600s, whose works are also on show here. But the scriptum, and accompanying images, relate to wholly contemporary themes, such as bullying in schools, our obsession with celebrity culture and the paranoia evoked by ubiquitous CCTV.

"Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" runs until 19 February, 2012

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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