Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s largest retrospective to date is on show in Sydney. Warning: It is not for the prudish or faint of heart.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s largest retrospective to date is on show in Sydney. Warning: It is not for the prudish or faint of heart.
My Reading Room

Think of Grayson Perry as the art- world equivalent of Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane, creators of The Simpsons and Family Guy, respectively. Like Groening and MacFarlane, Perry uses graphic imagery to deliver biting social commentary, ruffling many a feather along the way. His ceramic pots often feature a pastiche of erect phalluses, hermaphrodites and scenes of social injustice – not exactly the subjects of polite dinner conversation. 

But that’s precisely the point. Nothing is sacred in Perry’s universe. The 56-year-old constantly lampoons the establishment: the art world, the Catholic Church, Britain’s class structure, the Royal Family. Last year, he showed up at Buckingham Palace to receive his CBE appointment in a midnight blue dress, jacket and feathered hat, reportedly much to the amusement of Prince Charles. Perhaps the latter recognised a similar outfit from the wardrobe of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall? 

Oh yes, Perry is a transvestite, with a fetish for women’s clothes and an alter ego named Claire. But he’s also heterosexual, married to a psychotherapist, and has a 24-year- old daughter. The point of Perry’s art isn’t to shock and awe, but to make interesting ideas accessible. “I don’t see myself as some weirdo… I see myself as the same (as my audience). I watch the same telly, I’m interested in the same things, I just think I have some interesting ideas that I want to share,” he told Australia’s The Daily Telegraph. 

Many of these ideas are indeed being explored in an ongoing exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), called My Pretty Little Art Career (Perry clearly isn’t above taking a swipe at himself ). It is his first major exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere and the largest retrospective to date, featuring over 60 works that span more than 30 years: ceramics, tapestries, iron sculptures, collages and etches. Many of the pieces have been painstakingly cobbled together from private collections around the world. 

The works are showcased in chronological order, allowing visitors to trace the cross-dressing satirist’s journey from working-class lad to 2003 Turner Prize-winning art world darling, whose pieces can fetch as much as £450,000 (S$880,000), according to The New York Times. Born in Essex, Perry endured a rough childhood. At the age of four, his mother had an affair with the milkman – literally – and his father left the family shortly after. He did not get along with his stepfather, whose working-class ideals were at odds with the young Perry’s sensitive, artistic tendencies. 

These incidents had a profound impact on Perry. Retreating into a make-believe world, Perry pretended he was a fighter pilot. His later works would be infused with motifs of fighter jets. As well, he found solace in his teddy bear, Alan Measles, who became somewhat of a substitute father figure and would recur in many forms throughout his artistic career. His curiosity over women’s clothes began around the age of 12, and, by his late teens, he had adopted the identity of Claire, an upwardly mobile Essex woman who is, in his own words, “a cross between Camilla Parker Bowles and Katie Boyle”.

Perry’s struggle with gender and sexual identity is captured in his early ceramic works. In Women Of Ideas (1990), he portrays transvestites in Victorian-era corsets and gowns; in Sex, Drugs And Earthenware (1995), he juxtaposes a black-and-white self portrait of Claire with crude drawings of hermaphrodites in high heels. 

Class struggles are also a frequent leitmotif, a result of his family background and his experience as a poor art student in London in the early 1980s. (At the time, he shared a squat with a girlfriend and her sister in Camden, while taking pottery classes at the Central Institute.) Poverty Chinoiserie (2003) is one such example, a strikingly beautiful ginger jar depicting the downbeat inhabitants of a council estate, one of whom is shown to be lying face down in a gutter, presumably drunk. 

Perry’s ceramics were eagerly snapped up by private collectors and public institutions alike. Investment banker John Studzinski, former Tory business minister Lord Marland of Odstock, and the 21st Century Museum of Art in Kanazawa, Japan, own his pieces. This commercial success, along with critical acclaim stemming from his 2003 Turner Prize win – where the jury “admired his use of the traditions of ceramics and drawing in his uncompromising engagement with personal and social concerns” – gave Perry the means to pursue more ambitious projects, such as tapestries, which are very expensive to produce. 

In The Vanity Of Small Differences (2012), Perry weaves a cautionary tale of a man’s rise from working class to middle, then upper class in six parts, each 4m long and 2m high. The Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), Perry’s biggest to date at 15m long and 3m high, is a breathtaking work that satirises the late-capitalist, post-consumerist culture we live in. Around a central figure seen to be clutching a Miss Dior bag, Perry incorporates numerous brand names, stripped of their logos – the premise being that by age 10, the average child of today would recognise about 400 brands. 

Multilayered, and densely populated with scores of references, Perry’s works are like richly detailed novellas. Yet he is not without his detractors. The Guardian’s resident critic, Jonathan Jones, once described him as “a mediocre muddle of an artist – yet mediocre muddle is apparently what modern Britain admires… You might call his tapestries ‘clever’, ‘hilarious’, ‘perceptive’ – but you would not say ‘genius’”.

However, MCA’s chief curator, Rachel Kent, who curated the exhibition, thinks otherwise. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, she says: “Part social anthropologist, part moral philosopher, Grayson Perry is an uncanny, truthful artist for our times. His revelations might be terribly funny, painful and humbling all at once, but his vast compassion for human frailty is never in question.”

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