Volumes have been writing on English eccentricity, films and television series have even been made. Volumes could also be compiled on British humor and its satirical tone applied to its own idiosyncrasy. Both aspects, self-criticism and extravagance, are ruling traits of Grayson Perry‘s personality.
Ceramist and transvestite, he has achieved ceramics to be considered a “fine art” and has made transvestism an essential part of his expressive necessity.
Going around the halls of a museum displaying glazed vases and colorful tapestries made by Perry we can have a sense of visiting the craft rooms of an ethnographic museum. In fact, it is not only the artisanal process that brings ethnography closer to his task, since the content of his works is pure sociological research.
Whether in large tapestries or combining sgraffiti and enamels in pottery urns, Grayson offers us his own vision of class conflicts in his native England, narrates the rise and fall of a young entrepreneur, refers ironically to tastes and habits of each social class, overlapping scenes to bring together different realities: from the hardness of life in decadent mining and industrial cities to the meetings of “cool and boring people”.
But he doesn’t take the distant and objective view of the anthropologist but biographical details permeate each of his stories. His two alter egos, the feminine and the masculine ones, that is, Claire (his transvestite Self) and Alan Measles (a teddy bear to which as a child he gave the role of “surrogate father”) appear in many of the pieces. In others, traces of his own childhood intersect with fabled lives.
The tapestries series The Vanity of Small Differences” (2012) has its inspiration in William Hogarth’s The life of a libertine paintings, using its moralizing and satirical tone to tell us the ups and downs of a computer engineer and his achievements for upward social mobility, but in the end, he is killed crashing his Ferrari into a lamppost. The textile compositions are inspired by Renaissance altarpieces, versioning the expulsion of Eden as the expulsion of the snobby son from the maternal house, and the agony in the Garden of Olives becomes an agony of the son who has to plug his ears his ears to not hear his stepfather singing off key.
A miner and a fighter face each other in Death of a working hero, a tapestry inspired by the union banner aesthetic. Between the two, a child with a teddy bear. Since childhood, Grayson had to deal with a tough guy masculinity he did not identify with, embodied in the figure of his stepfather. Both the desire to cross-dress and the need to fill with the stuffed animal the absence of paternal tenderness begin in his childhood.
The British Museum plan held by Alan and Claire (wearing a folk costume) corresponds, in the words of Perry, with the “celestial chart”. Around the map, we can see sites of spiritual and mundane pilgrimage: from Graceland to Mecca, from Wall Street to Lourdes. In this tapestry, Map of Truths and Beliefs, there are important aspects of his personal logbook: art as therapy, the idea of pilgrimage and his alter egos.
A few years ago, he commissioned a customized motorcycle: a pink Harlem-like with the slogans “patience” and “humility”, as opposed to the bikers aggressiveness, their skulls, infernal flames and defiance of death. His pink motorcycle carries a sanctuary that shelters Alan. It is not just a decorative object for him, but a kind of heaven angel with which he undertakes his “pilgrimages”.
The vases recall the refinement of the Satsuma porcelain, of the Satsuma porcelain, but instead of water lilies we find a group of transvestites, and fighter jets substitute the colorful fish that we usually see in the Japanese urns. In others, body restraints by SM practices, street children silhouetted in gold and threatening shadows of boxers … Strangely Familiar, Shadow boxing … they speak of particular realities, about fatalism that could be avoided if inherited social patterns were not repeated.
Perry came out with Claire and filled the wardrobe of his female avatar with all kinds of fantasy clothes: doll dresses, Mery Poppins umbrellas, platform shoes … But Claire is not only a kitsch housewife. She has a combative spirit and brandishes anti-art banners at the entrance to the Tate Gallery, or takes a Kalashnikov when necessary, as when during the Yugoslav war she made a “regional” dress for herself (“Claire as the mother of all battles” 1996), embroidered with warlike motives, eviscerated soldiers of pre-Columbus style.
The inbreeding of the art world and the praise of manhood are two walls Grayson has tried to tear down, and he has largely achieved it being accepted as an “artisan” and “folkloric” artist.
Sex, war and power relations were the major themes that inspired decorations of Greek and Etruscan vessels, the same ones that now decorate Perry’s vessels and that perhaps bequeath to future archaeologists a personal vision of what class conflicts and family dysfunctions were in postindustrial England.
Grayson Perry, Folk Wisdom
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki
until 2nd September 2018