Britain’s two most famous artists are Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry but the most beloved is certainly Perry. Brits at large adore him, connecting to his innately English sense of quirk, his Monty Python strain of cross-dressing and his proudly displayed working class roots that allow him to cross over class barriers.
He is witty in that acerbic British wink-wink manner and royally entertaining, just ask Prince Charles. Wasn’t it perfect that Perry dressed like Camilla when he went to get his medal at Buckingham Palace? The Prince was greatly amused. His writing as an art critic is accessible and has been well received. The Socialist Review defines him a “a happily married father, holder of an MBE, soon to be installed Chancellor of the University of the Arts, and national treasure beloved by all.”
In a television landscape dominated by Simon Cowell and various poor imitations, Perry is the antidote. In this show, as in his 2012 series All In the Best Possible Taste, he took a genuine not-just-for-telly interest in his subjects, getting to know them and reserving judgment until he’d spent time with them. And it was neither a “You’re fired” judgment or all-out adoration that went into each of the resulting portraits, although he was often blunt about his reservations. His judgment came from a place of being judged himself, as a transvestite.
However, in the same newspaper, Raiside’s colleague at the art criticism desk, Jonathan Jones, took a very different view of Perry and his recent retrospective exhibition, Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk, at the Turner Contemporary (Margate, May 23 – September 13, 2015) saying seeing the show was like “being trapped in a room full of trendy people talking bollocks.” But he begins by saying that Perry would be a very good artist but for one problem:
As a performer on a public stage, he is brilliant. His prickly persona is a work of art in itself. At pure conceptualism, he is great. What a shame that he insists on making stuff. Just when his conceptual career is at its height – with his crazy witch house opening its doors in Essex – here comes an exhibition not of Perry, but his pots. Provincial Punk at Margate’s Turner Contemporary is a thorough survey of Perry’s craft objects, from ceramics to prints and tapestries – an exploration of his making, in all its mediocrity.
In time, the stuff here will overcome the fame he has now, its ordinariness making future generations wonder what all the fuss was about. As physical, sensual works of art, his pieces have all the vibrancy of a laborious Victorian oil painting of a dog loyally attending its master’s grave, or a child blowing soap bubbles.
The stupidity of his ceramics really takes the Staffordshire biscuit box. Perry’s pots start with a cliched image of traditional ceramics as genteel bourgeois decor, then go about “subverting” this straw man with collaged pictures of council estates, angry kids and swearwords.
One is annoying; a roomful becomes cacophonous. Walking among all the strident phrases and thinly drawn faces, I felt as if I was trapped in one of those parties drawn by Michael Heath where lots of trendy folk are talking bollocks.
The review amuses me because I am often seen as too sharp toothed as a critic. Jones gives me cover and while I enjoy his intemperance because he has passion, I do not agree, as I will explain later. But he was not alone, it is as though British critics have been patiently whiling away their evening hours sharpening knives for the retrospective.
Alison Cole in The Independent is not as brutal as Jones but nonetheless by means of faint praise demotes Perry’s work from art to entertainment:
There is no doubt that Turner Contemporary’s survey of the work of this Turner Prize-winning artist will be hugely popular. When I visited over a Bank Holiday weekend, with the gallery’s spaces thronged with observers of all ages, it was clear that his ceramics, prints, and tapestries, with their seductive glazes, riveting detail, love of social history and saucy sense of fun, speak to many people in a way that not much contemporary art does or can.
His works are so consciously homely in their subversiveness, so wry and affectionate in their observations, and so lacking in any real sense of rage or provocation, that children were able to play a Where’s Wally?-type game as they went around, eagerly spotting a London double-decker bus imprinted on the back of a “Bronze Age” skull (The Fallen Giant), but missing the ejaculating penis on a 2003 vase.
There was praise as well but less prominent in the media than blood letting (violence always leads the news). Noel Halifax writing in The Socialist Review took a very interesting line noting the irony that resort town of Margate is the birthplace of both Perry and another provocateur, Tracey Emin:
It’s both appropriate and ironic that [the retrospective] is in Margate. Appropriate because Margate is a wreck of a seaside town that has never recovered from Thatcherism, and this devastation of places, people and ideas is one subject of Perry’s work. Nothing is more fitting than to see the place before seeing the work — his films, drawings, pots, tapestries, imagined maps, poetry et al. The energy seems limitless.
Both Emin and Perry have viewed the world through the mirror of their teenage rebellions, one in Essex, the post-punk transvestite, the other, the wayward girl in Kent. Both from the fringes of London, they have used art as a means of escape and of understanding the mess that they found themselves in — the smashed up world when market forces are let loose.
There is no doubt that Perry is a great critic and explainer of the art world. But much of this art is so embedded in time and place that it could age very quickly, particularly the tapestries. Who will know of MySpace in five years? The pots are the best — wonderful and disturbing — with layers of meaning and references. James Gillray, the 18th century satirist, is a clear influence…Class is central to the work but class as defined by consumption and style.
On the surface, the work sits in the mainstream of the art establishment — embrace the market, be self-obsessed, take nothing too seriously. Though Perry has called the exhibition Provincial Punk, there’s no anarchism. Although he shares “their willingness to turn things over”, he says, “it is a teasing kind of rebellion; it is not a violent rebellion.” But neither is it a cynical playful mash-up of trendy art school fashions. The art is better than that. Beneath the cynicism is anguish, a working out of an inner and outer world gone wrong. Against the odds and current fashions, the work strives towards seriousness.
Let me disclose that I have a dog in this fight. Through Garth Clark Gallery, Mark Del Vecchio and I gave Perry his first and so far his only New York solo exhibition in 1991. The New Times reports he is trying make up for the long absence although the Perv Britannia nature of his work might not connect with American audiences. I was then, and remain now, a devoted but not uncritical fan, although I have rarely been disappointed. More than that I have come across few human beings, let alone any artist, who is so disarmingly authentic and perspicacious.
He is a brilliant critic and much more so than many of those who recently tried to dismiss him. Indeed, the fact that he is an artist with a bigger audience as an art critic than most critics must rankle and be part of the harsh tone of the attacks.
The criticism is not all groundless, of late he has not been spending enough time in the art studio vs. the TV studio and this is evident in the retrospective. His studio work has been becalmed for the time being, not quite the top item on his to-do list. That will affect his legacy if this remains the case but knowing his restlessness this will probably change.
Jonathan Jones, as he often tends to do in his art reviews, misses the point about Perry. I feel in part that is because while Jones has wit he has little humor. That puts him at a disadvantage with Perry. He attacks him for failing at things he has not set out to achieve. While the artist is a mega presence in the arts, physical art is not about being an alpha dog like Picasso or Bacon. When I say that he is a B-artist, I do not mean it as an insult. To put it differently he is heroic but his work is not and this is even true of the tapestries despite their scale. That does not mean that he is not a good artist.
I am a huge fan of B-art. That is art that is in the canon but not at the very top. Francis Picabia is a good example. I find art in this range to be more humanist, more loaded, less obedient to the often-stultifying A-art rules.
What one sees with Perry is what Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the 247-year-old artist-run institution to which Mr. Perry was elected in 2011, terms “that very anarchic streak of independent-mindedness” characteristic of British art. Smith describes him as “this generation’s Hogarth.” He was referring to William Hogarth, the 18th-century painter, printmaker and satirist, who was viewed in his day “as a slightly oddball artist, but of huge contemporary significance.”
He views Perry “more as a graphic artist than as a potter,” describing him as “a first-rate printmaker of extraordinary invention and imagination, with a great deal of intelligent social commentary.”
Martin Gayford’s review endorses Smith’s point of view in The Spectator:
As time goes on it becomes ever more apparent that — in his combination of grittiness, eloquence and wackiness — Perry is very much in the national grain. He even manages to look like a sort of Identikit British archetype, resembling, in different images he presents of himself, Margaret Thatcher, Alice in Wonderland and Richard III.
No doubt, at some point in the future there will be a grand-scale overview of Perry’s work at the Tate or RA. But in the meantime, Provincial Punk, a medium-sized retrospective at Turner Contemporary, Margate, gives an opportunity to assess where he has arrived right now. He emerges as a late developer who has blossomed remarkably in middle age.
Gayford enjoys the pots unlike other critics who have dismissed them as so much bric-a-brac. He understands how they function and he understands their independence. A lot of pots (Hans Coper for instance) nest happily as a group but not Perry’s stand-offish vessels:
The pots, however, don’t coexist easily — as some works of art do not. Displayed alone, ‘The Chelmsford Sissies’ is a striking conceit, as is ‘The Huhne Vase’ (2014), dedicated to the former minister and covered with portraits of him, his personalised number plate, penises and the symbol of the Liberal Democrats. But a forest of such ceramics densely covered in slogans and complex imagery — which is what you find in the first room of Provincial Punk — is daunting to digest. One ceramic, ‘The Chelmsford Sissies’, depicts the fate of Sir Thomas Sissye and his men, royalists who, defeated in the Civil War, were forced to parade through Chelmsford — Perry’s home town — in women’s clothing.
Gayford’s conclusion is a solid one:
“He belongs to a long line of oddballs — including Blake, Lewis Carroll and William Morris — who amount to a tradition of their own. His achievement is that by putting the contradictions of his own sensibility side by side, he has made some new atlases of that elusive and much debated entity: Britishness.”
The atlases he refers to are Perry’s maps based on 17th and 18th century etchings that have received more praise than most other aspects of his art:
A particular favourite of mine [are the] psychic maps. The last are based on 16th- and 17th-century prints, and present a terrain of hills, rivers and seas labelled with a scattering of 20th- and 21st-century references. ‘Map of an Englishman’ (2004), for example, charts the seas of Hyperactivity, Agoraphobia and Catatonia, the inlet of Narcolepsy, and the little towns such as Angst, Schadenfreude and Fear-of-Failure.
I travelled back rather slowly on the high-speed train from Margate, via a long sequence of northern Kentish towns — Faversham, Sittingbourne, Chatham, Rochester, Strood. But it was easy to believe it was traversing the terrain of one of Perry’s maps, skirting the Sea of Delirium, stopping at settlements with names such as Baked Beans, Victoriana, Conspiracy Theories and The Sixties.
I cannot imagine that the negative reviews bother Perry that much. Surely they sting; one’s retrospective is supposed to be a coronation. But it actually plays into his hands very well. His success is based in part on a difficult act of contortion, being both an outsider and insider as well. So the wrath that the art establishment has visited on his show has only served to burnish his street cred.
You may feel that he receives all too much attention. But intentionally and unintentionally he keeps making news and no other artist with the possible exception of Ai Weiwei has done more to keep the ceramic medium in the mainstream art spotlight . Now following its completion, go to the house he built, a secular shrine that he calls, “my Taj Mahal.” And stay tuned.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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