Made in less than four weeks from initial idea to broadcast, the first instalment of Grayson’s Art Club is testament to ceramicist Grayson Perry’s entrepreneurial spirit. Just one of many creative rapid responses to the COVID-19 crisis designed to engage us with art and culture, it sits alongside initiatives from Arts Council England’s £160 million emergency response package, museums and art fairs opening up their doors to virtual visitors, and shareable resources such as Michael Craig-Martin’s downloadable “Thank You NHS” poster, ready to be coloured in and posted in your window.
Over his six-part series, Perry promises to help “battle the boredom” by taking us on a “journey of art discovery”. This journey will combine footage of the artist creating new work – in episode one, a portrait of his wife, psychotherapist Philippa Perry, on one of his trademark ceramic plates – with interviews with celebrity guests, contemporary artists. There are also paintings, sculptures and textiles sent in by the public, that will judged and curated in an end of series exhibition to archive the club’s creative responses.
The first episode kicks off with a reflection on the genre of portraiture and its historical function in celebrating and commemorating the great and the good. It’s a genre that resonates in the age of the “selfie” in which Web 2.0 technology and platforms such as Instagram promise to make celebrities of us all.
From a look back to his previous Channel 4 show Who Are You? in which reality TV star and model Rylan Clark-Neal can’t take his eyes off his own painted miniature, to viewers’ portraits of heroes of the moment – including frontline NHS workers and the celebrated centenarian fundraiser Captain Tom Moore – we see how the genre has always given history a human face.
Comedian Keith Lemon’s digital sketch of US singer Pharrell Williams demonstrates what can be achieved at home with familiar mobile technology. And, while the upbeat soundtrack of Williams’ feelgood hit Happy was intended to boost our collective wellbeing, the contribution from another comedian, Joe Lycett, hits a different nerve and his painting of chief medical officer Chris Witty, while designed for comedic effect, is quite moving in its execution.
This is not “high-art lite”. Other Art Club members include serious players in contemporary art, from this week’s focus on figurative painter Chantal Joffe, to Antony Gormley and Tacita Dean, who have been lined up for future episodes.
The interview with Joffe – answering questions posed by her own daughter in their own home – is intimate and quietly revealing. Joffe reflects that making self-portraits has been a constant of her life since the age of six – a means of reflection that enables her to focus both inside and outside of herself. As she shows us her latest self-portrait in which her furrowed brow and dark eyes meet our gaze, Joffe wonders if she will look back and see the effects of these strange times etched on her face. It neatly illustrates Perry’s point that portraiture is not just about famous faces – it’s a way of understanding ourselves and the times in which we live.
Sign of the times
We are not allowed to forget about those times: this is not simple escapism. Practical tips on how to be creative during lockdown include examples of artwork improvised from domestic materials, among them soya sauce, noodles and (my favourite), Vanessa Marr’s embroidered yellow duster. But rather than simply connecting a contemporary British public with the “make-do-and-mend” spirit of parents and grandparents whose lives were constrained by wartime limitations, the message about creative restraint is more compelling.
Joffe urges us to keep it simple: pencil and paper can be enough. Citing Picasso’s 1943 paper-napkin Head of a Dog as an example, she says the best art emerges from an economy of means: limited materials and opportunities present challenges that result in more creative solutions, as well as offering us the chance to observe, reflect and accept the reality of the present.
As well as a means to finding mindful focus, Joffe’s comment brings into relief the potential impact that global lockdown may have on the creative output of a generation: rather than a jingoistic encouragement to keep calm and carry on being creative, it is instead an invitation to pause and reflect.
Art and minds
There is a serious message here: art is more than a distraction to make lockdown more bearable. As Perry states, art can help us through this crisis – it inspires, consoles and tells us truths about who we are.
Coming at a moment in which the value of artistic and cultural production is questioned as creative industries shut down and freelancers lose their livelihoods and the return on investment of so-called “low-value” higher education – such as fine art and other creative courses – is under scrutiny. It’s a timely reminder as we sit at home and consume the products of undervalued creative labour more than ever before.
Perry claims that his first lesson is that portraits don’t have to be likenesses. But the take-home message is that creativity is about channelling communal feeling, intimacy and making human connections. Yes, this is undoubtedly intended to be feelgood telly. Perry’s humour and affection for his wife is infectious – but it is the tears in Philippa’s eyes as she reviews her husband’s finished portrait that hit home. “I think you know me better than I know myself”, she reflects.
Grayson’s Art Club reminds us that creativity promotes relaxation, and happiness and well-being – but also that it is an essential part of being human, full stop.