March 2016


Grayson Perry’s ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’

By Julie Ewington

In Praise of Shadows, 2005, glazed ceramic, collection of Victoria and Warren Miro, London. Image courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London © Grayson Perry

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, until 1 May 2016

In Australia we see more American artists than British ones. Grayson Perry’s retrospective exhibition is British to its bootstraps, like a chintz armchair, which makes it the epitome of un-cool. But there’s always a sharp needle hidden in the upholstery. Sydney loves him for it, and is flocking to see his vibrant, dense narrative art.

The self-described “transvestite potter” is now a Turner Prize–winning commercial success; he’s a fixture in London museums and a presence on British TV. Perry is an unlikely star: generous, affable, sensible and hard-working, blessed with Nordic good looks and an eclectic fashion sense in drag. The mix is quintessentially British – he is an “eccentric”, a “personality” rather than a celebrity, more pantomime dame “playing to the gallery” (the title of his 2013 BBC Reith Lectures) than clubbing drag queen. His natural habitats are the high street and the pages of Hello magazine.

All of Perry’s works, from the celebrated ceramic vases to industrially woven tapestries, serve as an anthropological study of the English, especially those from his native Essex, the aspirational county north-east of London. He skewers social and political institutions, from the aristocracy to the social-climbing middle classes (not excluding himself), tilting at national identity and masculinity on the way. And he’s smart with it: Perry works through vernaculars legible to broad audiences, like collaged photographs and line drawings, leading viewers into his sexual frankness and class critiques before they know it. He draws on familiar imagery, from William Hogarth’s 1732–33 paintings A Rake’s Progress to popular magazines, and his illustrated maps are as much medieval storybook as they are mindscape. It’s an odd mix – deliberately provocative, yet mimsy-mumsy.

Despite his avowed scepticism of “the art world”, Perry is a canny operator. He is disarmingly candid about his own career – in a lecture at the Sydney Opera House in December he claimed a dysfunctional family helps, and he has dealt with youthful trials and adolescent anger thanks to “shedloads” of therapy. In a video interview with the MCA’s Rachel Kent, Perry agrees he’s a lot less angry these days, but clearly early anguish still drives his creative life. He says of cross-dressing that “it’s a fetish, it’s an obsession, it’s a compulsion”, that it ensures mental health by bringing different aspects of his personality into alignment. And that, as an artist, he uses material to hand: his own internal life, and society around him.

This is what the MCA’s visitors come to see: Grayson Perry performing as Grayson Perry. But which self is that? Conscious of the fluidity of identity, Perry is fond of quoting the philosopher Julian Baggini: “I is a verb masquerading as a noun.”

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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