Colourful Turner Prize-winning transvestite artist Grayson Perry launched a major exhibition of his tapestries – which put residents of Sunderland firmly in the picture.
The controversial artist, known for his penchant for dresses, was always going to brighten up a dull day and he didn’t disappoint in a multi-colour frock, orange stockings, blue leggings and white platform shoes.
And first sight of his large tapestries, with scenes including Sunderland girls dressed for a big night out, will certainly give locals plenty to talk about.
In a coup for the town, Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens is picked to be the first host of an international tour of Perry’s exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences which has its origins in his widely-watched TV series about taste and class.
C4’s insightful three-parter All In the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry was a look at society through the artist’s eyes and the first memorable episode saw him visit Sunderland where he enjoyed a night on the town in a little black dress and high heels.
He created a series of six 2m x 4m tapestries, a modern take on William Hogarth’s famous 18th Century paintings A Rake’s Progress showing a working class man’s rise (and fall) from obscurity to greatness, with the other tapestries inspired by visits to middle-class Tunbridge Wells and the upper-class Cotswolds.
At yesterday evening’s exhibition preview, ahead of today’s official opening, all eyes – after switching from Perry whose contribution to the taste issue included a blue hair bow, sparkly eyeshadow and pink eyebrows – were on what his two working class scenes had to say about Sunderland.
They feature people he met on his visit, some of whom he was due to see at the preview for the first time since the programme. So what had been their response back then?
“They seemed to like it,” said Perry.
“It was different when they were seeing the tapestries for the first time.
“I was still unsure about them myself. They were fresh off the loom and I thought ‘oh no, have I got a bit much’?”
Woven from wool, cotton and silk, they’re bold, colourful – and, just as Perry describes them, “fun”.
One, called The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, shows a gaggle of girls in party dresses while a young mum with a disgruntled expression is pictured at home with a baby in one hand and mobile phone in another. Close by are two kneeling men, bald and tattooed, holding a tiny Sunderland shirt and a miner’s lamp.
Interwoven are words about their life and in the background is a wealth of detail to examine: lager can, cigarettes, ornaments, and paintings by Lowry, the late Matchstick Man artist and regular Sunderland visitor.
The other, The Agony in the Car Park, features a club singer, plenty red-and-white, pigeons, houses, gardens and musical references to the Futureheads.
The tapestries are more likely to provoke a smile than offence but Perry does not mind courting controversy.
The artist, best known for his pottery, famously made headlines in 2003 when he collected his Turner Prize as his alter ego Claire, in a flouncy lilac dress, announcing: “It’s about time a transvestite won the Turner Prize.”
This time he wants his work to spark a bit of debate about class, taste and British society.
What he’s discovered is that taste develops as we grow up with our family and peers but there’s mobility between classes.
It’s the middle class, he says, who are most aghast at bad taste and many of those who profited from the Thatcher years and called themselves middle class have disassociated themselves in these harder times and shifted back again.
He adds: “There’s not one class I like more than any other,” and observes that the North East reputation for friendliness is rather more to do with openness.
“People are very liberal with their friendliness and also a more negative side if they feel like it!”
Having the tapestries make their debut in Sunderland is “perfect” he says.
“It’s where it all began; they look great.”
Perry made a gift of his tapestries to the Arts Council Collection and British Council which are sharing ownership – a first for them – and want as many people as possible to see them.
They’re expected to be a crowd-puller in Sunderland and a highlight of the Festival of the North East.
After their run here finishes on September 29, they go on a national then international tour. There’s also an app, launched by Aimer Media, which adds another dimension to the exhibition. Available for the iPad and iPhone, only in the App Store, it includes an audio commentary from Perry and reveals the in-depth story.