SYDNEY — The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia has mounted the first ever retrospective of Grayson Perry’s work in the Southern Hemisphere. The exhibition, playfully titled My Pretty Little Art Career, consists of an unprecedented collection of Perry’s drawings, photographs, sculpture, clothing, and tapestries, and of course the spectacular, subversive ceramics that brought Perry fame, controversy, and the Turner Prize in 2003.
I’ve often come away from shows this big with the feeling that the artist would have fared better if the curators had put a little less in. This is one where one leaves hungry for more. So inventive is the brain under Perry’s blond bangs that the more than 80 works of art don’t feel like enough. This number does not even include the videotapes of Perry’s various TV programs, his sketchbooks and drawings, or videos of his art-making process.
For those unacquainted with Perry’s personal history and work, a brief digression may be helpful. After receiving a BA in Fine Art from Portsmouth Polytechnic, Perry lived in London, squatting for four years and dabbling in performance art and film. Introduced to ceramics by a roommate, he studied at the Central Institute, at first considering the medium a hobby. However, the very “uncool” nature of ceramics, the fact that it was considered kind of “middle class” and not “real” art by the mainstream British art world, where ceramics was, for the most part, still considered “craft” perfectly suited both Perry’s political and artistic proclivities, and added to the medium’s appeal. Drawn to the prosaic qualities of pottery, and its association with domesticity, Perry found he could tell his stories on classical ceramic pot forms with layer upon layer of glorious, glazed color, metallic luster, texture, and text. Using ceramic decals, he incorporates pop, personal and media imagery, which, alongside with his intricate, flowing drawing give a punch to his subject matter that few other mediums can.
And it was Perry’s subject matter that really thrust him into a spotlight which no potter before or since has found themselves. Perry’s pottery depicts a psychosexual world that many found disturbing (although I also see great humor in much of what he makes). He has mused upon child abuse, his own sexual life, fantasies, fear, anger, gentrification, politics, and capitalism. In short, he chronicles the deepest and often most conflicted feelings that a person may have, expressing subjects that are politically charged in an art form most commonly associated with genteel life.
Perry’s narratives swirl around the outside of the pot. Like a neurotic who retells a story over and over again, his beginnings are always the end. The pottery’s layers of drawing and color are like pentimento fragments of memory haunting the storyteller. It’s rare that an artist is confident and bold enough to express both deeply intimate and political issues all together, and particularly in the medium of ceramics. Perry has a superb control of the medium — glazed surfaces can radically change when fired and the ability to hang onto both the messages in his work and the aesthetics is impressive.
Grayson Perry has been a transvestite since he was a teenager. Much has been made of this by the media and by the artist himself. The BBC reported on December 7, 2003, the following account of the Turner Award ceremony: “Wearing a purple dress with large bows and frills, Perry told a ceremony at the Tate Britain gallery in London, ‘Well, it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize. I think the art world had more trouble coming to terms with me being a potter than my choice of frocks.’” Apparently, a fear of pottery trumps transvestitism.
This dual identity has been a huge part of Perry’s work and his role in the British media. He has always been very candid about it and the years he spent in psychoanalysis to unravel the trauma of an abusive childhood. It’s impossible to discuss Perry’s work without touching upon his transvestite persona — Claire is her name — since ruminations on gender and identity infuse much of the work. Claire appears in several photographic series and has made numerous public appearances sporting outrageous outfits. In the March, 2014 issue of Vogue magazine UK, Amy de Klerk declared, “Grayson Perry is a national treasure. Starting out his career as a controversial ‘transvestite potter,’ he has since become a Turner-Prize-winning artist; BAFTA-winning documentary maker; author; social commentator; curator; Reith lecturer; not to mention a devoted husband and father.” It is a curious paradox when a transvestite potter, who makes work about deviant sexuality with an acidic political take on British society, is declared a “national treasure.”
In light of all of this, it was notable to me how lightly Claire was represented in the Sydney exhibition. Six photographs and two items of clothing are all we see of her in the show. I couldn’t help but wonder whether if, instead of a curatorial choice, this was one made by the artist. In the extensive video interview featured in the show, Perry seems quite done with “Claire” as a topic of conversation. He describes, in almost Jungian terms, how he used to feel that Claire was an alter ego, another part of him, but now they are one. I think the exhibition is stronger for not obsessing on this part of Perry’s oeuvre; there has always been an air of sensationalism about it. Now the work — subversive, hilarious, and potent — is free to stand on its own.
The second largest body of work in the show consists of narrative tapestries that are outspoken indictments of British bourgeois society. Based on the historic tradition of European narrative tapestries, these are massive in size — the largest measures 49 feet long by 10 feet high. The works are garish in color and chock-full of political messages, advertising art, logos, political jargon, satire, and humor. They scream at you from the walls of the museum. The most ambitious of these is a group of six related tapestries entitled The Vanity of Small Differences. The series is based on William Hogarth’s 18th-century engravings collectively titled A Rake’s Progress, a morality tale that tells the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who arrives in London, wastes all his money, and ends his life in prison. Perry’s version is a savage swipe at the class system in Britain and those who try to rise beyond their station. The works critique capitalism, yuppies, aspirational life, and what Perry sees as a corruption of British culture. His anger is a part of his worldview that doesn’t come into play as much in the pottery and it’s a valid wake-up call to what he sees as the hypocritical nature of contemporary British society.
I find the tapestries ugly, but that may be a part of the artist’s intent. Always conscious of “taste,” Perry has designed these tapestries in a way that challenges the viewer on several levels. Physically, the works look a bit like oversized souvenir kitsch; the color is harsh and bright. In general, the tapestry’s flat surface and the screaming, heavy graphic design lack subtlety. I think the works are meant to resemble billboards, like giant satiric advertisements for the British way of life. The results are overtly political, bold, and angry, presenting a visual whirlwind that pales in comparison to the delicate and richly layered surfaces and messages of the pottery. The pottery is more nuanced (in all ways); its emotional content more personal and intimate.
The exhibition also has a room of Perry’s superb sculptures made of metal and found objects. Many of these seem to vaguely relate to objects from African cultures, but, of course, with Perry’s own sly tweak. Cast metals and rusted surfaces along with a bricolage sensibility lend these pieces a raw quality not seen in any of the other work in the exhibition. Their inclusion shows Perry to be comfortable in many idioms and materials. “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman,” for instance, is a 10-foot long cast iron ship, heavily laden with detritus, like glass bottles filled with unknown liquids and relics that hint of a pilgrimage or voyage of exploration. While the cross-cultural references don’t seem quite as natural as Perry’s work in other media, his genuine talent as a designer and consistent vision of the artist on a perennial voyage, be it literal or psychological, are deeply felt.
If you are willing to give yourself over to this exhibition’s journey, Grayson Perry will take you places that are both terrifying and hilarious. I admire his mastery of multiple mediums, his willingness to delve into realms of the psyche that sometimes make me squirm, and his political voice that is perhaps not quite what Vogue magazine had in mind when it declared him a “national treasure.”
Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia (140 George Street, The Rocks, Sydney, Australia) through May 1.