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.