Wed 13 Sep 2023 to Sat 30 Sep 2023
Tue-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat noon-5pm
The Artist Room presents The Milky Bar Kid was Strong and Tough, an exhibition of new paintings by Ben Levy (b.1982, London) contextualised alongside a key etching by Grayson Perry (b.1960, Chelmsford). The exhibition seeks to highlight both artists’ shared interests in aspiration, obsession, childhood, and social standing.
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Ben Levy is a self-taught artist whose practice reflects on his upbringing in Barnet in North London. Levy’s practice dissects themes of childhood and morals – often pairing found imagery of consumer products with paintings evocative of growing up in Britain. Levy’s newest paintings explore materialist concerns and family life, imaging phenomena that recall the unique aura and sensibility of a British seaside summer holiday in the 1980s.
Grayson Perry is an artist, writer and presenter whose complex work explores idiosyncrasies of British life including its ‘prejudices, fashions and foibles’. Employing diverse mediums from ceramics to etchings and tapestries, Perry’s practice weaves personal and observed narratives to relay the complexity of consciousness differing between strata of class, gender, and geography. Like in the work of Levy, Perry’s practice consistently reflects on his youth and upbringing to better understand his place in the world today.
The exhibition takes its name from a 1979 jingle from a television advertisement for Milky Bar chocolate, depicted in Levy’s new painting The Milky Bar Kid was Strong and Tough (2023). In this work, Levy reflects on the way that products were (and are) advertised to children as luxury and desirable items; purposely driving feelings of ‘raw want and necessity’. All of the work is informed by Levy’s relationship to economy and the ways that desire perpetuates in us – how, as a child, ‘we are marked by our position in a world not wholly of our own making’. For instance, other works such as Double Bubble and Bognor Regis (both 2023) make obvious how packaging designs use luminous, saccharine colours to appear more desirable.
Different spaces are juxtaposed in the exhibition. Some scenes are recognisably historical while others render spaces from a different era that might look the same today. For instance, Finish Your Chips, Then You Can Go And Play (2023) depicts the kitsch Burger-shaped seats in a McDonalds restaurant in the ‘80s, while This Is The Last One, Spend It Wisely (2023) depicts an empty arcade which somehow appears timeless. Despite no presence of the human figure, writer and academic Matthew Holman has noted that Levy depicts ‘the traces or subtle marks of absence left on the objects that we hold or use, and the ways that the world leaves impressions’ to create images ‘strange, defamiliarized, obtuse’. Using titling as a way to reference his biography, the names Levy gives his pictures hint at key moments for Levy in defining his formative relationship with the world. As Holman later observes, ‘Levy has produced a body of work that offers a remarkable, multi-faceted artistic commentary on the nature of working-class childhood unlike any British artist working today.’
Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere (purple) (2008) is an intricately produced Photogravure etching on five plates printed on one sheet of paper. The work was created following the artists’s chance visit to the largest medieval map still known to exist, the 'Mappa Mundi’ [map of the world] in Hereford, ambitiously created c.1300. An homage to this influential historical artefact, Perry’s sprawling tableaux includes text and imagery that explore his belief system; his opinions and place with wider society. Situating himself like Christ, the artist describes his intention to ‘parody the intellectual constructs of religion’ in a work that characteristically satires the environment and eccentricities of British life.
Rooted in the artist’s perception of the world around them – much like Levy’s paintings – the map pays astute attention to detail to the signs and signals of consumerism today. Among the phenomena depicted are ‘the cult of shopping’; casino capitalism’; ‘the lottery’; ‘latest must-haves’; ‘poverty of aspiration’; as well as retailers such as Starbucks, Ikea, and Apple. Perry is keenly aware of how notions of luxury – and the associated happiness that comes with spending to become aligned with brands and products – are constructed. Although acerbic, with a sometimes absurdist temperament, the work is rooted in sincere social commentary, with the intention to draw focus on the diverse realities of the present. As in Levy’s work, Perry uses a careful play with history to evoke different periods and distil an idiosyncratic appearance and transcendent feeling.