Grayson’s Art Club: The Exhibition (Manchester Art Gallery, 2020)

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Back at the beginning of the first lockdown, Grayson Perry, potter and tapestry maker extraordinaire and no stranger to intimate and challenging TV shows, ran an Art Club on Channel 4, with each week having a theme, an interview with an artist and one with a celebrity who was also into art-making, and contributions from the public. Perry and the celeb chose one art work each from these submissions and Perry spoke to the creator over video chat. Even I was tempted into doing the odd sketch, and the show was shot remotely in Perry and his wife Philippa’s house, with lovely, tender details of their life and art-making together coming through.

They planned to hold an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery in the autumn, but of course the subsequent lockdowns put a stop to that. Perry and the gallery’s curators got as far as setting up the exhibition, and an update TV show gave us a glimpse into the makers themselves getting to see their works on show, but it hasn’t yet opened to the public. However, the exhibition catalogue is available and I decided to buy a copy to remind me of the lovely beacon of fun, art and hope the first run of Art Club was – and it’s back, too, starting on 26 February.

The catalogue is a nice object, of course, French flaps and bright cover and all. The Foreword by Alistair Hudson, the Director of the Manchester Art Gallery, talks of the gallery’s pride in being chosen to host the exhibition, and the fact that the pandemic was the first event to close the gallery since it was founded in 1823. The art gallery’s ethos is  “to be an art school for everyone and to promote the uses of art in the making of a healthy society” and this certainly fits with the ethos of Art Club itself.

Grayson Perry’s Introduction also concentrated on his pride in the project:

I am taken aback by how flushed with pride I feel, not just for the beauty, skill, charm and fun in the art but even more so for the breadth of people who are part of this.

The artists do indeed run from internationally famous professionals through art-making folk in the public eye for other things, such as Joe Lycett and Jenny Eclair, to 10,000 or so members of the public who might have studied art and very much haven’t. Perry talks of how the project came together very quickly and what it has done for people, and makes a very telling comment which I think is very true:

Between you and me I don’t think Art Club is principally about art. It’s mostly about people, telling their stories with images, individual stories, family stories, community stories and the stories that they share with all of us.

He also pays tribute to Philippa, his “biggest influence and source of wisdom”: it was lovely to see her own work in the show and it’s in the catalogue, too.

After this front matter we have a big section for each of the themed programmes in the series – Portraits, Animals, Fantasy, Britain and the like. Each section includes transcripts of the interviews with the artists and celebrities who were featured in the particular programme, and also the celebrity’s narration as they made their art. Then we have a selection of pieces from the public as well as from the artist and celebrities, with Perry’s and the celeb’s notes on why they like particular works, and Grayson and Philippa’s works as they come up. At the end of each section there’s a blank page for the reader to add their own art work if they wish. There’s a section at the end on the Alan Measles sculpture that took form throughout the series, showing it in all its stages. And right at the end, a page of stickers: fair enough!

A really lovely memento of a peculiar time and a real glowing light of hope in that time for many of us,

There is a page for the exhibition on Manchester Art Gallery’s website, do check to see if it opens https://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/graysons-art-club/

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Liz Dexter appears to have become Shiny’s resident Grayson Perry expert (see here and here). She has no intention of submitting art to the next Art Club. Liz blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Grayson’s Art Club: The Exhibition (Manchester Art Gallery, 2020). 978-0901673992, 276 pp., ill.

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