My Pretty Little Art Career puts Grayson Perry’s life of self-examination on display, from his kinky ceramics to works angrier but no less colourful.By Patrick Hartigan.
Grayson Perry’s ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’
To say that we make and arrive at art through a complex and idiosyncratic web of experiences dating back to our early childhoods – from our individual realities – is to state the obvious. These experiences include those of looking at art through history, a carefully staged event in museums, books and more recently Google, from which the weave of influences becomes ever more complex and rich with age. We are as artists and art fans both empty vessels, ready to be filled with new life, and marked by a patina of personal bias and experience. Nobody is born an artist: they become an artist.
Regarding my own biases, I can sometimes admire an artist’s work while feeling at a distance from it. I see the objectively impressive facts before me as if from a grandstand; I get drawn towards the action but somehow not taken inside it. This is the case with the work of Grayson Perry. Or at least I thought it was.
The night after seeing Perry’s exhibition My Pretty Little Art Career – on at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until May 1 – I had a series of exhausting dreams. The scene most prominent, the one that weighed heavily upon my chest when I woke, had me standing in the vestibule or corridor of some kind of manor. I was in a corner, with my back turned to family members, weeping and choking on some deep-rooted sadness. I viewed this scene in its entirety from a few metres off the ground. When I woke up I felt heavy, drained, and extremely thirsty.
It only occurred to me when confronted with my blank page that there was something about that dream, my view and stance in it, reminiscent of Perry’s divulgences. Was I repressing my connection to this artist’s work? Was there something in the mining of his fears, fantasies and traumas that bypassed my thinking and consciousness, and reached into a deeper depository? It’s impossible to say, of course; certainly my impulse is to question it, but I find the mere possibility encouraging.
Perry is a potter who regularly delves into his fantasy-rich childhood while critiquing and commenting on society at large. His transvestitism is a very public and performative component of an oeuvre that encompasses ceramics, tapestry and sculpture. There’s an adolescent earnestness and charm to his work, the way it interweaves personal myth and moral critique, much of which concerns the British class system. A large and vivid series of tapestries called The Vanity of Small Differences (2012), designed in Photoshop and woven on a computer-controlled loom, draws inspiration from William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-33). Both series depict the downfall of a poor man made rich. In Perry’s case, the antihero dies after wrapping his car around a pole in Chelmsford, Essex, where the artist grew up. Perry believes that “nothing has such a strong influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class we grow up in”.
But if class dictates the laborious fibre of Perry’s work, then fantasy provides its flair. Alan Measles is a teddy bear that became Perry’s childhood protector – the leader of his imaginary army – after his father left home following his mother’s affair with the milkman. The bear appears in many of the works, including the endearing miniature pot-filled Shrine to Alan Measles (2007). The way Measles gets woven into these works is illustrative of a dynamic between private fantasy and public persona in Perry’s work: secrecy and withdrawal as a child, confrontation and speaking out as an adult – as artist, performer and, more recently, commentator on art.
Many of the scenes taking place on the pots come out of Perry’s experiences of growing up an outsider in his tough, utility-focused Essex surroundings. It seems no surprise that one of Perry’s great influences, discovered as an art student in 1979, was the painter Henry Darger. Darger was a hospital janitor who suffered abuse in an orphanage before spending his life secretly depicting an epic battle, through watercolours with an illustrative line not unlike Perry’s, between hermaphrodite children and adult dictators. The pictures illustrated an epic fantasy novel thousands of pages long, only found after Darger’s death.
Perry’s stories and memories have been pouring out over the course of his 30-year career, in part aided by his years in psychotherapy. The personal and emotional dredging finds form in rich, dreamy glazes collaged with drawn figures, photos and words. Precious Boys (2004) shows a group of transvestites surrounded by flowers and fighter jets staged around a resplendent coppery surface. The interrelationship between femininity and a macho, warmongering other, namely the world, locates the narrative crux for many works while also offering clues, perhaps better left to a psychotherapist, on a temperamental thread running through Perry’s commentaries.
His recent Reith Lectures were witty and entertaining – Perry is without doubt a great entertainer – but the openness he espouses can nevertheless smack of a legislative attitude towards art. His comments with regard to Aboriginal art not being “contemporary art”, something for which he has since apologised, are one example of this. I wasn’t angered by this comment so much as surprised that an artist would feel inclined to define their field, namely art, in the first place. His comments shine light on a colonial, classificatory vestige in Perry’s outlook.
Perry’s gaze seems to hunger for self-knowledge while only being prepared to turn in on itself in certain ways, unable to ever let that gaze and self go. The title of his current exhibition confirms his perspective of peering down onto himself, like a therapist above a couch or a commander looking down at a map – narrating his journey from that slightly elevated, knowing perspective. It brings to mind the self-curating of social media: what I like, what I don’t like, what I’m looking at, how I fit in, how I don’t fit in, who I think I am… Where he may have once reached out for Alan Measles, Perry now clutches identity, an obsession I find quite exasperating.
Perry critiques history while at the same time living and seeking solace in the not-so-imaginary battalion of its museums; his transgressions and attacks don’t subvert these institutions so much as afford them new wings. To varying degrees and in different ways artists are always cherrypicking from history. While wrestling with my own elevations and vestiges, the question that lingers for me is whether Perry’s work achieves autonomy, a mysterious “whole” that transcends the sum of its parts and the influences and tropes infusing his work.
Sex and Drugs and Earthenware (1995), an urn showing a collaged photo of the artist dressed as a stern-looking lady seeking a position as a maid with a list of sexual fetishes and preferences, captures something of Perry’s earlier, thankfully retreating, artistic catchphrase. Older examples of his ceramics consciously and shrewdly juxtaposed the politeness of their craft with sexual kink. “I can be as outrageous as I like,” he once said, “because the vice squad is never going to raid a pottery exhibition.” Consistent with an evident obsession with war, he refers to his pots as “stealth bombs”. Thankfully, though, more recent works shoot higher.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu pointed out that purpose and being are found in the emptiness of pots. While the sum of parts and their constituent details ambush my attention, Perry’s pots nevertheless grant glimpses into objects pleasingly elemental. The two groups of pots in this exhibition revel in the beauty of their surfaces, the sensuousness of their forms, the serendipity of their colours and movements demonstrating what Perry describes, somewhat unsurprisingly, as the “materials fighting back”. Works such as In Praise of Shadows (2005), Poverty Chinoiserie (2003) and Western Man (2004) crept up on me as I slinked around this show: proudly decorative and angry with content, these pots remain beautiful, defenceless and empty all the same.
MUSICAL Georgy Girl - The Seekers Musical
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, until February 21
CINEMA Flickerfest 25th International Short Film Festival
Bondi Beach, January 8-17
VISUAL ART Deborah Kelly – Bodies of Work
Penrith Regional Gallery, NSW, until February 21
Carriageworks, Sydney, January 7-12
SPOKEN WORD David Sedaris
Civic Theatre, Newcastle, January 17
Sydney Opera House, January 18-19
City Hall, Brisbane, January 20
Arts Centre, Melbourne, January 21-22
Theatre Royal, Hobart, January 23
Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia, Perth, January 24
CULTURE PolArt 2015
Various venues, Melbourne, December 27-January 3
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Watched pot". Subscribe here.