As part of our critical studies work we have been asked to write an essay about a contemporary artist whose work inspires us. I have chosen Grayson Perry, the 2003 Turner Prize winner and popular transvestite potter. Here is my essay:
Grayson Perry: Contemporary Artist
Grayson Perry is a contemporary artist most well known for his puffball dresses and pottery. Perry was the first transvestite potter to win the Turner Prize in 2003 and has since only gained in popularity and notoriety, especially as his alter ego, Claire. He is a very diverse artist working in a range of mediums from ceramics to tapestry to various forms of printing.
Perry’s first real form of exposure was in the Turner Prize of 2003 where, although he was the outsider, he was the outright winner and has thus become enshrined in history as the first cross-dressing artist as well as the first ceramic artist to win the prestigious award for young British artists. He had adopted his flamboyant dress sense from his years in the early 1980s where he was a member of a neo-naturist group. The group would make films and performance art pieces which brought Perry into the mind set that everything was a performance and led to the birth of Claire, his female persona. As part of this group, Perry was also introduced to a wide range of new art techniques including embroidery and photography which have continued to influence and be present in his work to this day. Perry was actually a fairly late comer to ceramics having only learner the basics at Portsmouth Art College. Perry only turned to pottery on the recommendation of one of his flatmates, a trained potter herself. “Evening classes were free then, if you were on the dole. So I went and quickly realised that it was a way of making something tangible, saleable and exhibitable.” He began making ceramic pieces because they were different and, ‘…kind of unfashionable.’ He did it to prove a point and to, ‘Follow the path of most resistance’ which is a motto he continues to follow.
Perry is also well known as a tapestry artist and has made numerous designs on the computer covering a range of topics from sexuality, religion and politics. One of Perry’s most well known tapestries is the Walthamstow Tapestry which was recently in the news having been purchased by a prestigious Chinese institution. The piece was purchased by the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in May, 2014. The purchase was made following weeks of art auctions in New York which saw many Chinese collectors begin to branch out and acquire foreign art. The purchase of Perry’s work is seen as a step forward and a breakthrough for international contemporary artists as this was the first work by a living, foreign artist to be purchased by such a prestigious institution.
The piece itself, The Walthamstow Tapestry, is a 15 metre long tapestry which satirises modern consumerism in the United Kingdom featuring many brand names interwoven throughout a person’s lifetime.
Another popular tapestry by Perry is the Vanity of Small Differences series which was the subject of the Channel 4 series In the Best Possible Taste and focuses on a person’s class and position in society – a recurring theme in Perry’s work. The series are inspired by William Hogarth’s 18th century depictions of British class and status. Vanity of Small Differences is Grayson Perry’s take on this idea for the modern world. Perry has used a common character to link all the tapestries together in the form of Tim. The first two pieces depict the working classes and show Tim’s childhood and gentle progression towards being middle class – embarrassed by his parents’ working class behaviour since attending a grammar school.
Appendix 3 depicts the third and fourth tapestries in the series which are titled ‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’ and ‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’ respectively. Perry has taken the titles of his tapestries from older, more religious and iconic paintings. These two derive from ‘The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ by Masaccio and paintings called ‘The Annunciation’ by Carlo Crivelli, Matthias Grünewald and Richard Campin. The entire series focuses on various aspects of British Taste with the middle two focusing more on the middle classes. The final two tapestries focus on the upper classes and Tim’s later life and ultimate death.
The third tapestry takes up Tim’s story as he is going off to university and getting a girlfriend, ‘… a nice girl from Tunbridge Wells.’ Tim and his parents have had an argument so he has decided to leave and become a member of his girlfriend’s middle class ‘tribe’. Each piece has quotes interwoven into the design from a different person in Tim’s life’s voice. The third piece is seen from Tim’s girlfriend’s point of view, ‘I met Tim at College … My father laughed at Tim’s accent but welcomed him onto the sunlit uplands of the middle classes. I hope Tim loses his obsession with money.’ During the filming of In The Best Possible Taste, Perry learnt of the middle classes’ obsession with brands and looking outwardly right and the same as everyone else – it is meant to instantly show others that they are part of the same ‘tribe’ as them making the brands a defining characteristic of the middle classes. Due to this, Perry has included many brands in the middle two tapestries ranging from Range Rovers to Jamie Oliver, ‘the god of social mobility’
The fourth tapestry in the series depicts Tim’s post university life when he is starting his own family and making a success of himself in the work environment. On the table is an iPad with the newspaper headline that he, Tim Rakewell, has sold his company to Virgin and his business partner, in yellow, has come to tell him of their success and that they are now both incredibly rich thus showing the beginning of Tim’s accent to the upper classes. The text in this piece is in the voice of Tim’s business partner, ‘Tim’s incredibly driven, he never feels successful.’ The scene is still typically middle class and is painfully aware of each decorative choice they have made – from the Penguin Classics mugs right down to which toys should be left laying around and, of course, the mandatory Union Jack cushion. Perry is showing us that the middle classes, which is where he identifies himself as being a part of, know how they appear to each other and the world outside their community but that they embrace that. They agonise over every decision about how they may be perceived but that they are proud of this form of paranoia.
Grayson Perry’s most recent exhibition was the ‘Who Are You?’ exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The series consisted of 14 unconventional portraits of people he met during the course of filming another Channel 4 series to accompany the artworks. The pieces range from modern and unusual pots, tapestries and screen printing of mock punk bands. The series begins with Perry’s own self-portrait – an etching of a walled city map. “The wall, I suppose, in some ways represents my physical skin but at the same time it’s permeable. I absorb the influences and the ideas of the landscape I find myself in.” In many ways the map shows the artist’s inner workings and how he sees himself, containing such places as ‘Doing Your Own Thing Road’, ‘Rollercoaster of Emotions River’ and ‘Who Am I? Square’. The piece is very introspective and provided Perry with a form of therapy. The map is a very successful piece and gives the audience an insight into the artist’s view of himself. However, the piece’s success relied heavily on Perry’s honesty in his work and wouldn’t have had the same affect or message behind it if he had portrayed an idealised version of himself. He has said that the therapy he has been receiving has helped make the piece as successful as it is – it allowed him to be more honest about his various positive and negative aspects which was critical for the intentions behind the piece to be clearly realised.
As you continue through the ‘Who Are You?’ exhibition, you are faced with many unconventional portraits which are not usually displayed in the National Portrait Gallery or even the subject of many artworks. The second piece you encounter on the prescribed route through the exhibition is the tapestry, ‘Comfort Blanket’. Perry has described this piece as being, ‘a portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant banknote, things we love, and love to hate.’ The centre and main focus of the tapestry is the ‘British citizen’ and their core values and identifying characteristics such as ‘Tolerance’, ‘NHS’ and ‘The Beeb’. Surrounding this are still things which define us but possibly things we aren’t as proud of like ‘Class Division’, ‘Moaning’ and ‘Bitter Irony’.
Perry has also made numerous pots as a form of portrait for this exhibition. The first one encountered on the route around the exhibition if the ‘Modern Family’ pot which depicts an alternative view on the ‘traditional’ family. The main subject of the pot is a gay couple and their mixed race son. They are idealised and shown in a positive light on this pot which is very contrary to the way the gay identity has been perceived before. Surrounding the couple are multiple photos of the more traditional and conservative idea of a family – mother, father and 2.5 children all smiling and happy. This portrays the traditional family as being almost false and the alternative family as being more genuine. The alternative family has had to fight much more for their family and have had to defend and justify their family but does this make it a more honest family than the traditional idea?
One of the most unusual pieces as regards subject matter is Perry’s ‘Memory Jar’ which focuses on an Alzheimer’s sufferer and their partner’s relationship with the disease. The jar depicts the couple hiding from the personification of dementia as it looms over and cuts up their old photographs and memories. It’s a very touching piece as we get an insight into the effects dementia has, not only on the sufferer of the disease, but also their family and those around them. In the Channel 4 programme which was filmed alongside the making of the exhibition, Perry discussed how Chris’ wife, Veronica, felt about the illness and losing their identity as a couple as well as their individual identity. We don’t often consider the effect Alzheimer’s has on the family of the sufferer but, in some ways, it can be worse as they must watch their loved one fade away and slowly forget who they are. Critics say that this is one of the most powerful and emotional pieces in the exhibit.
Grayson Perry is a very unusual modern artist whose work deals with sometimes uncomfortable issues ranging from identity, gender, religion and disability. His work is about people and their need to belong or their desire for understanding from themselves as well as the rest of the world. He is used to being the other due to his transvestism so the issue of wanting to belong is a common theme in Perry’s work as he is completely immersed in this every day. ‘Our most beautiful and complex artwork that we can make, is our identity.’
 The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry – p. 70
 The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry – p. 70
 The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry – p. 70
 The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry – p. 72
 Episode 2 – In the Best Possible Taste – Grayson Perry