Grayson Perry and Chris Hipkiss: the tale of a possibly-imaginary relationship…

April 21, 2010

I first became aware of Grayson Perry’s The Walthamstow Tapestry, courtesy of a British television show, in autumn 2009. This brief glimpse of the work immediately made me remark on how similar it was, in scale and design, to Lonely Europe, a 10-metre pencil-and-silver-ink drawing I completed way back in 1995. Intrigued, I found more on the Paragon Press website, which showed the tapestry in its entirety. Initially, I was comparing the two works simply to find a ‘common interest’, so to speak; I knew that Perry had seen Lonely Europe in New York at The American Folk Art Museum’s Obsessive Drawing exhibition in 2005, and that he has strong links to the ‘Outsider Art’ scene in general — a scene which, however appropriately (or otherwise) in my eyes, has embraced my art. I have since, however, attempted to further analyse our links as social geographers, and I believe that I’ve come up with something rather intriguing.

What ARE obvious are the differences between the two works. The Walthamstow Tapestry is in high colour and, with its socio-cultural references, it is typical of Perry’s work. To me, it seems fairly easy to deconstruct, and Perry himself has done so on numerous occasions. By contrast, Lonely Europe is superficially black and white and somehow, along the way, I lost my originally-intended narrative. It is not a preference of mine, exactly, to leave the interpretation of my work to others, but it has nevertheless always been that way. I regard this as a result of my not having attended art school and thus learnt how to contextualise and present my output in the accepted, formal way. I do not keep records of my creative processes, either in my head or on paper, thus I did not log why I used such and such motifs and constructions.

Leaving aside these differences, however, there seemed to me obvious similarities in the overall structure of the two drawings. Though unintentional at the time, Lonely Europe offers a presentiment of Perry’s birth/death, standard left-to-right narrative in its two constructions at each end; at the ‘beginning’ is a thin, almost feminine birth structure and, at the ‘end’, a bloated, masculine moon. In The Walthamstow Tapestry, the structure of the narrative is based on a ‘blood river’; in Lonely Europe, ‘the river of blood’ is black and broken, but is clearly seen throughout the drawing. Both narratives are also supported by the use of a continuous motif: in Lonely Europe, it is a dark, ornate wall-like structure; in The Walthamstow Tapestry, it is a golden-yellow road. There is a religious central character (a Hindu-styled goddess and a ‘Madonna’ respectively) in both works too, looking down with head leaning to her right. Of course, any wall-hanging Bayeux-Tapestry-type format limits the artist in some way; this was probably why I floundered in connecting all the disparate designs during the difficult two-and-a-half year creation of Lonely Europe, resorting to a tried and tested blood river of my own, taken from earlier large works…

Then, on closer inspection, something else struck me: There is a large boat that floats on Perry’s ‘blood river’. Taking in the whole work, it became more and more apparent that this river was not just something that flowed, but that is was an actual river. And not only that; it was the River Thames. To expand, the mother on the left is the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire; fitting neatly with Perry’s observations of English culture, it represents the very centre of the Heart of England. At the end lies Old Father Thames, exhausted and/or dying in the London Estuary. Along the way are lakes or reservoirs. More importantly, it is the linear shape of the river that gives it away, being very reminiscent of aerial London; the classic Eastenders image of London, in fact.

My analysis was starting to make sense. The Walthamstow Tapestry is a monumental work, Perry’s largest to date. With all its references to big names, from Louis Vuitton via The Guardian to PG Tips, Walthamstow seemed far too provincial a setting for such an epic modern tale. And the river is certainly not the River Lea. The birth-and-death theme, the devil, the river of blood, the shape of this river, the numerous references to consumerism, the nod to Old Father Thames and to the quintessential Heart of England could only mean one thing: the work should be called The London Tapestry.

Additionally, when I looked at the work from the artist’s cultural perspective as I imagine it to be, a new dimension evolved. Perry, from Essex, or more pertinently from north of the Thames, had sketched a London seen from the north looking over the river to the southern horizon; I came to this conclusion because much of the ‘action’ seems to be on one side of the water. As a Londoner myself, I am acutely aware of the river as a dividing line, as it is in other European cities. In the case of London, it is more a frontier where the city ends. Looking over the river, leaving The City, The West End, the East End, leafy North London suburbs and Walthamstow behind, even the landmarks on the south side — the Tate Modern, the London Eye, the Globe Theatre, MI5 — seem to turn their backs on South London.

This personal revelation was very interesting as it reminded me of the initial ideas I had when I started an earlier large work, London. My intention was to draw a Greater London landscape based on the Thames, as a central theme, with some level of accuracy. There is an estuary of sorts — the river was based on the aerial view — and some landmarks (Trafalgar Square, Houses of Parliament, etc.) are correctly located. However, it is clear that I soon gave up on the idea of including any real, prominent features for South London; the extent to which disinterest, ignorance or lack of planning played a part, I don’t recall. Whatever the reasons, I was aware that I wanted to create a narrative of some kind of my love of London and The Thames.

In London, the ‘beginning’ is depicted as a lake full of people in the top left corner, intended to represent Perivale Sewage Works, close to the hospital where I was born; my West London roots. The ‘end’ is Canary Wharf in the far distance, at the time the only prominent Docklands building whose flashing light could always be seen on the approach during regular travels to London from our Kentish village. In the centre is the mess of the big city, made from my memories and inspirations, albeit badly executed in the end. I can’t help wondering whether a similar, if basic, personal narrative also runs through the The Walthamstow Tapestry. The birthing as quintessential England, in Gloucestershire, where I believe Grayson Perry now lives; a representation of his life in the main centre; the devil/death scene as Walthamstow and his studio in London. He seems to have constructed his London from his current geographical ‘upside-down’ viewpoint, just as I constructed my London from my former Kentish, south-of-the-river perspective.

Acquired by the Outsider Archive in the 1997, London has since been exhibited at IMMA, Tate Britain, Whitechapel Gallery and CAIXA, Madrid.

Of course, I have little idea whether these similarities were intentional or coincidence on the part of Perry. However, a very exciting offshoot from my ponderings and – perhaps over-imaginative – examinations has helped me to solve a more practical dilemma that I have had for a good few years.

My drawings are detailed, take a long time and are shown and sold as originals. Alpha works full-time with ‘Hipkiss’, so we’re keeping a whole household running on my art alone. We have yet to profit from limited editions, books, etc., and there is always a shortfall of available work. Not being fully accepted as a contemporary artist without the ‘O’ label attached, we still struggle to achieve pricing which enables us to survive financially. My desire to produce gargantuan works has consequently been frustrated for many years; Lonely Europe was my last large drawing and I long to work on the same scale again. I abandoned a work to rival it a few years ago because of time constraints, but also — it has to be said — due to the same old difficulties of creating a coherent and sophisticated narrative on such a vast canvas, especially when the work on it must be fitted in around the making of pieces for sale; progress was too slow.

Knowing the processes Grayson Perry used has led me to a workable solution: The Walthamstow Tapestry began life as a 4m long (i.e. relatively small), monochrome drawing which was then manipulated using Photoshop®; the resulting colour image was used to create a 3x15m, machine-made tapestry, designed specifically to hang on one wall at Victoria Miro Gallery, London. For the last four years I have been working on identically-dimensioned, mostly portrait-oriented landscapes; I have now realized that they could all appear to be part of a larger picture. I plan to use the images from seven, new and similar-sized drawings — each complete compositions in their own right — to create a single panorama of about 2×8 metres. This could then be printed, from large-format EKTAs, on one piece of paper and reworked to create a new original, thus solving both the demand for saleable works and my desire to produce significant and meaningful large canvases at last. And for that, I have Grayson Perry to thank!

Watch this space…

Chris Hipkiss

Inside Out: Etiquette and artistic inspiration.

In 2000, a New York Times reviewer wrote, of Chris Hipkiss:

“… a certain illustrational quality could suggest the hand of a trained artist mimicking the look of visionary Outsider Art.”

It was an observation that took us completely by surprise; the notion of mainstream artists wandering purposely into such territory had never occurred to us. Since, of course — as so often happens after revelations — we can’t help but notice the not-inconsiderable number of people who have done just that.

There is, amongst others no doubt, one stand-out difference between untrained artists and their contemporary, conceptual-art peers; the former are not expected to invent a whole new idea for every project, whereas, for the latter, this constant pressure is a major part of their profession. This factor alone may explain why, in recent times, so many have latched on to the suddenly-highly-publicised idea of ‘Outsider’ art; after all, it offers an opportunity to get ‘back to basics’ in terms of style and skill; a lot of it looks fun — carefree and childlike in a way in which most conceptual artists don’t have the chance to express themselves. Without the ‘mental health issues’ and ‘marginalisation’ commonly associated with ‘Outsider’ artists, these modern professionals can, arguably, enjoy something of a sabbatical in taking the concepts forward. No wonder it’s an attractive proposition.

However, to revisit the perennial theme of this blog, the ‘Outsider’ word as employed here encompasses a rather broad church of untrained artists. There is a tendency — through no fault of their own, given the overriding discourse surrounding the categorisation — for these borrowers of ideas to credit only the genre in general, or subsets of it, with the exception of certain dead, very famous examples such as Henry Darger (and, even then, it’s not always done). What’s the problem? If the artist is dead, it’s a reference — an honour which finally embraces them within the chronology of art history — and evidently so to any aficionado of the scene; if they’re living, surely the original artist — or artists — were they to register the appropriation at all would feel flattered; after all, they don’t create for anyone but themselves, don’t have any professional aspirations, do they? Such is the rather condescending, accepted view of ‘true’ Outsiders. How those ‘true’ Outsiders’ might actually feel, were they furnished with the details, is a subject for discussion in itself.

But what about living artists erroneously caught up in the categorization?

Coming back to a detail of the review of my first paragraph, it’s worth pointing out that Hipkiss is far more akin to an old-fashioned landscape painter, albeit with no sense of colour (in the old-fashioned sense) and a post- or alter-modern twist, than he is any kind of ‘visionary’; his scenes are almost all based on real-life places, buildings and countryside, with his trademark androgynous ‘fairies’ featuring as the only other-worldly element. However, when his art first started to gain recognition, it was frequently referred to as ‘illustration’, despite the obvious inappropriateness of that label (inappropriate labels have been something of a theme of Hipkiss’ career). It was down to shows of his outsize panoramas of the early 90s — made years before similarly-formatted works by contemporary peers — that that description was gradually rendered just too inappropriate. As such, he was inadvertently amongst the original instigators of the recent Drawing-as-Proper-Art movement.

The point is, Chris is a living, professional artist, but his craft is not the creation of a series of concepts; his work is a gradually-evolving, life project. One all-important concept. Casual appropriation of that concept — of his compositions, style and formats — whilst offering a diversion to a much-more-well-known borrower, means that, should Hipkiss produce a new, large panorama, or even have one of the old ones shown in a major institution, it would be as likely to provoke yawns as wonder this time around: “Oh, he’s copied XXX contemporary artist.” It is not a level playing field; Hipkiss has a fraction of the publicity of his art-school-trained peers. Again, this is not said to point fingers at the conceptual artist(s) concerned, but rather at the journalists, curators and academics who write off any untrained artist as an Outsider and, thus, not professional — credits not required.

And even if such appropriation is not intentional, should the mainstream artist — as well as those journalists, curators and academics — not be aware that the onus to research possible predecessors is on them…? Apparently, once again, the Outsider label offers a ‘free pass’ in this respect. As such, a contemporary artist like Dominic McGill may or may not have seen the work of Jean-Pierre Nadau, another untrained artist corralled into the Outsider fold, before embarking on his recent projects, but that isn’t the point; Nadau’s work is not unknown, by any means, and one would expect that McGill’s training would require him to have sought out such a historical reference. And if he failed to do so, one would think the critics, etc., would step in. McGill is represented in major contemporary collections; Nadau must still resort — many years after creating his concept and his first long scroll, of which McGill’s are so reminiscent — to donating, or as-good-as, to ill-fitting Outsider museums. As such, this is more a matter of justice than mere etiquette — and, more mundanely, that little issue of making a living.

All that aside, Saatchi has an upcoming show entitled The Power of Paper — the latest of a plethora of major shows devoted to drawing… and, for us, above all, it’s just great to see Hipkiss’ chosen medium get the recognition it deserves.

Alpha Mason


3 Responses to “Grayson Perry and Chris Hipkiss: the tale of a possibly-imaginary relationship…”

  1. katie said

    I don’t have much to add to your post, here, but I wanted to say how much I’ve loved discovering your work and this blog. I hope much more is to come!

  2. david maclagan said

    Couldn’t agree more about the misguided appropriation of artists like Hipkiss as ‘Outsiders’

  3. Rudi Salomon said

    The Hipkiss-Perry connection is not new. In the late
    90s, years before becoming a Hipkiss collector, I
    discovered your work via a link from Grayson Perry’s
    webpage. That site is long gone, but, as witnessed by
    The Walthamstow Tapestry, there is still a link.

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