Grayson Perry is exhibiting THE LIFE OF JULIE COPE at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery, in his home county of Essex.
Perry describes Julie’s tale as representing ‘the trials, tribulations, celebrations and mistakes of an average life’, by portraying Julie’s life through tapestries, woodcuts, sketchbooks and an audio telling of her story. Seeing the smallest of details being studied and celebrated led me to reflect on other life cycles – I considered that of the gallery and the artist as well as that of the visitors.

Firstsite is a relatively new gallery and hasn’t been without its own trials and tribulations. This, early on, included more talk than should have been warranted, over the fact that the gallery was built on the location of an old bus station. Onward and upward. The arrival of an internationally celebrated artist, who isn’t afraid to explore his very local roots, has brought unprecedented crowds and in the way that Julie educated herself later in life, the gallery is starting to feel wiser and less of a newcomer. Galleries, like pop stars, are only as good as their current hit and maturity breeds the confidence to pick a winner. Firstsite seemingly has an air of ‘getting it right’ at the moment – in the knowledge that these tapestries are unquestionably breath-taking, in their colour and scale as well as satisfyingly detailed upon closer inspection. The glistening cleavage of Julie, the liver spots on Rob’s ageing and balding head and the coarse hair on the back of his hands. It’s a winner.

On the opening night I found myself randomly standing next to one of the ‘real’ Julies, who Perry interviewed whilst researching and developing his own Julie. There was a sense of ownership from, not only her, but from the predominantly Essex crowd. Seeing the colourfully embroidered name and map of this often culturally maligned county, reignited pride and purpose.

THE LIFE OF JULIE COPE - GRAYSON PERRY (Photo Credit: Charlotte Anne Dixon)
THE LIFE OF JULIE COPE – GRAYSON PERRY (Photo Credit: Charlotte Dixon)

I feel this photograph captures the mood Perry has conjured up with his ballad and it is one of contemplation. The voyeurs of Julie’s life are surely taken to internal reflection? Where are they in their own life? Are they the younger, unfulfilled Julie or the truly happy one? Are they wondering how their own lives will be documented, remembered and celebrated?

On a second visit, I had the time (and space) to step away from the tapestries and take in the rest of the exhibition. The scrapbooks are where Perry first envisaged his homage to Julie, ‘The House for Essex’ that went on to be built as a collaboration between Perry and FAT Architecture in Wrabness (2015). The sketches are beautiful and made me consider the lifecycle of such a successful artist. When we see a Turner Prize winner we are often presented with their most edgy and contemporary work, where originality is everything and boundaries are tested. We sometimes forget that all artists started out as children who were probably ‘just’ really, really good at colouring-in and then drawing. His drawings give a real insight into that little boy who would have been ‘good at art’ and able to create imaginary worlds and it is from these stable foundations that the exciting work emerges later in life.

I hope visitors take time to notice Julie Cope’s book collection.  It’s a superb part of the overall narrative but could easily be missed as it’s in the museum shop rather than the gallery.  Independent bookshop Red Lion Books, in Colchester, was asked by Firstsite to supply over 20 of the books read by Julie during her lifetime.  These include Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Fat is a Feminist Issue, The Handmaid’s Tale and rather touchingly and close to Grayson Perry’s heart, DAVID WALLIAMS ‘THE BOY IN THE DRESS’.

GRAYSON PERRY: THE LIFE OF JULIE COPE is at Firstsite until 31/12/2017

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