“On the whole I make very common categories of cultural product,” says Grayson Perry, “clay vessels, textile wall hangings, framed prints, figurines.” There is, however, nothing ‘common’ about the subject matter of Perry’s work or about his public persona – unless we take the word in a pejorative sense: “Oh my God, Grayson is so common!”
By the standards of the British class system, Perry is cheerfully, defiantly, common. He hails from Chelmsford in Essex, a county that has become a by-word for both working-class and aspirational-middle-class vulgarity. One thinks of another native of Essex – Russell Brand, the crass comedian who has transformed himself into a would-be messiah for the poor and downtrodden of the earth. There’s something to be said for the motivational power coming from a really soulless place.
Perry has tried to perform the conjuring act of remaining true to his working-class roots while becoming one of Britain’s most prominent and successful artists. He has courted popularity and outrage at the same time. In fact, it might be more accurate to say he has courted popularity through outrage.
Using forms such as pottery, prints and tapestry, he has loaded his work with satire, social critique and sexual allusion. The whole shebang is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in the 30-year survey, My Pretty Little Art Career. We tend to think of ceramics as still and silent, but Perry’s vessels are unbelievably noisy – covered in tight little drawings, photo transfers and text. They are like densely layered novels in clay. The same busy drawing, the same penchant for gags and story-telling is found in his large-scale tapestries and other works.
Yet the work is only one part of the package. Perry is known for his flamboyant transvestism, which began as a furtive, teenage fetish, and has blossomed into fullscale cabaret. He has taken an activity that was once seen as a perversion and made it into a trademark and trump card. He’s truly an artist of the Zeitgeist, for never has there been an age when issues of sexual identity and gender politics have received so much attention in the mainstream media; never an age when so many deviations from the norm have been accepted and celebrated.
There is no point in calling Perry’s cross-dressing a publicity stunt. It is unashamedly a stunt, in line with his belief that an artist should use whatever methods are available to reach the widest audience. He would argue, however, that it is also a genuine need – a part of his personality that has to find an outlet. Six years of intensive psychotherapy seems to have convinced him that it was fine to frock up if only he recognised the roots of this compulsion in his dysfunctional childhood.
Perry began in a more stereotyped manner by trying to look as much like a woman as possible, but nowadays he is happy to be a man in drag. The outfit he wore when delivering a lecture at the Opera House last week consisted of a gigantic blue nappy, a yellow and red blouse with sculptural shoulders, red tights and pink high-heeled platform shoes. Hardly an ensemble that allows one to blend in with the crowd.
Perry has realised that being an artist means it’s OK to be both a narcissist and an exhibitionist. It might even be argued that it’s a positive advantage. The earliest piece in the show is a plate called Kinky Sex (1983), which features a crucified Christ with a coin placed over his loins. It is the work of an artist who wanted to shock or titillate his audience from the very beginning, although it’s a rather juvenile expression of that urge.
As he becomes more technically adept and ambitious, Perry makes himself into a regular feature of his ceramic iconography. In Sex and Drugs and Earthenware (1995) he appears as his feminine alter-ego, Claire, along with a message that mimics the personal columns in a sex magazine. Precious boys (2004) is decorated by a frieze of transvestites, which may or may not include Claire. In the elaborate drawing that adorns Personal Creation Myth (2007), he shows himself giving symbolic birth to his teddy bear, Alan Measles, with an umbilical cord creeping from his penis to the bear’s navel.
When he’s not trying to confront us with sexual imagery, or pictures of himself in drag, Perry makes works that satirise the art world, such as Balloon (2004), an imaginary map of the London art community, done in the style of a medieval drawing. Indeed, his preoccupation with the art scene is another form of narcissism, as he wants us to know that he is the consummate artworld insider, but also an outsider – one of us!
Perry is simultaneously a contemporary art A-lister and an outspoken critic of the art business, alert to all its follies and pretentions. This is a juggling act he has carried off for years. The only recent hiccup came with those unfortunate complaints about Aboriginal artists “borrowing the status of contemporary art.” Only a true believer in the contemporary art circus could make such a statement. He says he’s sorry, and there’s no reason not to believe him. He’s sorry to have said something so revealing.
Perry can’t begrudge the Aborigines anything. He is, by his own admission, prepared to borrow ideas from anywhere, be it from an Outsider such as Henry Darger, the draughtsmen of the middle ages, or the tribal sculptors of Benin. Cast iron sculptures such as Our Father (2007) and Our Mother (2009) draw shamelessly on African art, with the addition of jokey extras such as a sewing machine, a hand gun, a ghetto blaster, and the ubiquitous teddy bear.
The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011) borrows even more widely, combining African, Asian and classical motifs. One can see that in the artist’s mind it’s all good clean fun.
Probably the most impressive works in this show are Perry’s enormous tapestries, including the six part sequence, The Vanity of Small Differences (2012). The title is taken from Freud, and the narrative idea from Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-33). These pieces chart the life story of a boy from the wrong side of town who betters himself through education, joins the middle classes, becomes wealthy, and comes to a nasty end when he crashes his sports car.
Like so many of Perry’s creations, including the large pots, and detailed prints such as Map of an Englishman (2004) – which uses the metaphor of a walled city as a veiled self-portrait – the tapestries testify to a prodigious work ethic. It gives audiences the pleasing impression that they are looking at “proper art”, as Perry puts it.
I had a slightly different feeling. Perry’s gifts are in the field of graphic art, but he is an illustrator who has been enterprising enough to expand into ceramics, sculpture and tapestry. His pots are not remarkable in terms of form, depending on surface decoration for their impact. Even the largest tapestries are woven in five hours by a machine, so the impression of immense labour is illusory.
What can’t be denied is the wit, intelligence and sheer perseverance that have gone into every piece.
The humour is relentless, like a vaudeville routine that never ends. I can’t help comparing Perry’s performance both in the gallery and onstage, with that of Gilbert and George, currently showing in Hobart. If the latter felt like stand-up comedy, Perry takes matters even further, into pure slapstick.
This is, perhaps, the immediate future of contemporary art. We’ve had our fill of tragedy in the 20th century, and now it’s time for comedy. If today’s artists wish to reach a broader public they will have to embrace what Perry identifies as “the growing role of PR”, making work that is provocative and, above all, entertaining. With his endless banter; his vivid sense of colour; his bawdiness; his preoccupation with class, inequality and sexual identity; even his ongoing critique of the artworld, Perry is made for success. He suggests that the artist superstar of tomorrow will not be a brooding genius, but a master communicator and entertainer. The frocks are optional.
Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career
Museum of Contemporary Art
Until 1 May 2016
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 19th December, 2015