Over the past few years, I have encountered the art and persona of Grayson Perry in several different settings and circumstances, albeit never in person, I should add. The first I heard of the individual now often referred to as a ‘national British treasure’ was during a Radio 4 interview, some time ago.
His distinctive voice, exporing and giving expression to fundamental ideas on art and existence in the most infectious manner, devoid of all affectation and pretention, intrigued and won me over just as it has countless others since then.
Grayson Perry gained widespread artisitic recognition in the early 2000s on winning and then memorably accepting the Turner Prize for his ceramic artwork, dressed in a Little Bo Peep-themed dress. However, it is perhaps his television programmes and radio broadcasts on aesthetics, taste, class and masculinity that have ensured that Grayson Perry has become a household name in the UK.
His thoughtful reflections on the intertwining roles of identity, culture, craft and art and the creative process in general are all-inclusive – opening out to the different strata of society and the fauna that comprise and occupy these tribal territories.
So it is that Grayson Perry is able to engage with hoodies from tough estates; the rather bland beings from the aspirational middle classes and finally the higher echelons of society - with the landed gentry and City traders.
Although he has broached subjects that could raise tension and ignite hostility, Grayson Perry appears to be perceived as a genial, disarmingly affable anthropologist. Indeed, he gauges the norms, values and rites of the societies cohabiting the UK today, rather like a social David Attenborough, with a wickedly raucious laugh.
He has broadened the immediate arts audience and opened out the world of art and creativity to the greater public - observing this, us and himself from numerous angles. He offers ideas and theories whilst the beauty of his work, in all its forms, leads onto further questions, ones that he turns from himself and his art to us all, leading the way forward in this unique, never-ending creative process.
Who and what are we ? What of the art that we appreciate ? Is identity our greatest artistic creation and conversely is art the most significant expression and validation of our identity ? Grayson Perry works in various classic media ; ceramic work, bronze, print-making and tapestry. However, he employs a unique approach to traditional forms - namely in the signature pots which led to his initial Establishment recognition.
His works combines the norms of convention with the innovative and highly unconventional, frequently supported by art-of-state (digital) technology. Just as his art goes beyond formal limits, seemingly merging technique and medium, to create an aesthetic patchwork, likewise his themes weave in and out of the content of his creative work, threading through the different pieces to produce a vast complex unity, with the artist acting as social commentator.
His artistic production taken as a whole seems to be an organic, multi-facetted tapestry, borrowing stylistic and thematic references from past and present, growing as a two-way mirror reflecting, and finding its own reflection in the ever-shifting layers of contemporary society.
I first saw some of Grayson Perry’s art ‘in the flesh’ at The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury in 2016, with the exhibition of his vast tapestries – The Vanity of Small Differences. With the six pieces, the human desire to seek individuality and personal ascension is set out in a panoramic work inspired by Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress and Freud’s theory of narcissism, in an era defined by consumer culture. This fresco of life and identity lay out the cultural badges which give shape and meaning to the class categories stretched out before us in this anti-hero’s story as the fictive Tim Rakewell progresses in this social and cultural game of snakes and ladders.
We may well gleefully pick out the social/cultural markers in this allegorical tale, but how far can we actually decode our own lives and the objects, activities and attitudes that act as a binding backbone to our identity ?
The Vanity of Small Differences was created parallel to Grayson Perry’s BAFTA award-winning Channel 4 series, All in the Best Possible Taste ; all fascinating, with scenes that are at once cringe-worthy, touching, emotional and all ultimately offer a humane view of the human condition. Shortly after the exhibition, I read the book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.which proved to be accessible, eye-opening and thought-provoking.
Therefore I was thrilled to learn that as head- coordinator of the 2018 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Acadmey Grayson Perry had, with his committee of fellow artists, selected a painting by my aunt!
I duly visited the RA, when London was sweltering under a relentless 37°degree heat-wave in July, and soon noticed that the crushing temperature outside this great bastion of the arts was matched by little sparks of electric tension within the exhibit rooms – with a pinch of superiority and preciousness radiating from and bouncing off some of the visitors.
We are, of course, all guilty of dismissing creations that do not meet the standard set by our inbuilt criteria. This behaviour is, after all, one of Grayson Perry’s themes in his study of taste as part of our social fabric, part of the uniform in our cultural clans. My aunt experienced this at first hand, as she went incognito to relish her moment of personal pride and bask in artistic glory in the bright yellow room all at the age of 88!
As she looked at her painting, hung up next to numerous other exhibits, she was accosted by some pretentious art-gallery bat, pondering on who could have painted such an awful piece and what kind of dog could possibly have such an expression… Too embarrassed to say anything, my aunt offered some non-committal response, without daring to admit that she was the offending artist. Grayson Perry himself puzzles over the elusive notion of ‘art of quality’, which is supposedly squarely rooted in the eye or mind of the beholder.
Our need to assess, categorise, applaud or dismiss reminds me of a scene in Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s 2014 film about the American artist, Margaret Keane. When the portraits of the doe-eyed waifs – the artist’s ‘children’ - are casually trashed by hard-nosed critics, the questions of what good art is and how you could define it are played out. The cutesy Big-Eye kids are certainly not my cup of tea aesthetically-speaking, but surely artistic ‘worth’ also resides in the creative instinct of the artist.
This drive for imaginative creativity and narration is what sets us apart from less sophisticated life forms, after all.The motivation behind each work – the currents and forces that led to its creation need to be considered and their full significance recognised. We need to eke out the integral meaning of the art on display, and not just follow our knee-jerk response to an aesthetic approach that has surely been conditioned by our cultural milieu.
The same process of giving meaning and identity goes beyond art alone, as we see in Grayson Perry’sobservations on masculinity, honour and status, All Man. The men from northern England (Hard Man) who lost their jobs and the fabric of their daily existence on the demise of the heavy industries have fought to maintain their identity, through ritualized activities that become ‘vessels of meaning’, just like Grayson Perry’s ceramic vases and pots.
Odd, incongrous couplings are the keynote of the artist and his art. Quaint, frilly frocks worn by this rather burly bloke as ‘Claire’ strike a similar tone as the elegant forms of classic, decorative vases and urns, adorned with in-yer-face sexual scenes.
All of what we consider to be familiar to us – our cultural, social and mercantile landmarks are slightly or wholly off-kilter so we must question the essence of identity, authenticity and worth. Just as we are unable to connect with the iconic brands that have been stripped of their instantly recognizable logos and writing fonts, we are unsettled by the traditional forms that do not deliver reassuring readability.
Pots that appear pretty and innocent at a distance reveal themselves to have a quirky, dark side when seen up close. All of this troubles and fascinates the viewer, capturing our attention with a ‘stealth tactic’ in a similar manner to the sexually-charged prints of Aubrey Beardsley, all executed with the most delicate draughtsmanship. Flowers are given the names of war...
And yet the notion of communication is key here in Grayson Perry’s work – with scraps of text and photo transfers included in most of the art forms to reinforce ideas explored in the artwork but ultimately leading us back to question and redefine meaning and identity.
References to art of every conceivable period abound as themes and styles are copied or ‘borrowed’ to create a layered texture, a cultural collage or quilting of the old to produce something new.
Here is work that does not slavishly seek originality but ultimately manages to create something unique each time.
Everything in Grayson Perry’s work appears to be a vast ethnographic exercise in which we must take part as fellow observers and social players.
Throughout most of Grayson Perry’s life and present in various shapes, forms and media is the guru, saint or God-like figure of 'Alan Measles', the childhood teddy bear who is the object of quasi-religious veneration.
Shrines are also of great significance, with their layers of symbols and talismans, rather like the cluttered possessions and paraphernalia that bear down on the figures of the two pilgrims statues (Our Father, Our Mother).
All in all, I love Grayson Perry’s art for its generous, all-encomposing quality that has consideration for everything, but does not take a haughty, stilted view on anything. He takes his role(s) seriously, but seems to take a healthily playful attitude towards himself and his art too, which is characteristically signed with a hallmark image of an anchor, preceded by a capital W!
This relative light-heartedness might be partly down to a strategy to avoid the self-questioning that he believes to cripple adult artists as they lose their youthful ‘unselfconscious joy of creativity’. Art cannot always be radical or even cutting-edge and as he points out, even the original punks are pensioners now, but it should not be cool or smoothed out to become flat, bland and meaningless.
The reactions to Grayson Perry, art and person, have provided as much food for thought as his work itself. The most curious of these was from an established artist acquaintance who disparagingly remarked that everything ‘brand GP’ was devoid of all meaning.
A peaceful end to 2019!