Wednesday 23 December 2015

Smiles and Self-Loathing in Sydney – Grayson Perry at the MCA

Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, installation shot, MCA, Sydney (Photo C. Rhodes)

I’m glad I went back to see the Grayson Perry show at the MCA a couple of days after attending, and thoroughly enjoying, the opening.[1] It's a sort of retrospective, and in effect it's the third time I’ve seen the exhibition, if you count the version I saw in the English seaside town of Margate last September.[2] I was intrigued that I was allowed to take photographs in Sydney, whereas there had been an absolute ban on photography in the gallery in Margate, policed by hardnosed invigilators.[3] I wondered whether this had contributed to my unsatisfactory experience at the UK venue, or whether it was at least partly attributable to a rather crowded hang.[4] The MCA has given its Grayson Perry show lots of space – the whole of the third floor galleries – and it really suits the work. In Sydney it can breathe. And since each individual object is almost a world in itself, breathe it must.

Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, installation shot, MCA Sydney (Photo C. Rhodes)

The overall feeling of the accumulated work was quite depressing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the exhibition, but it left me more convinced than ever that the wit and humour – and both are here in spades – is employed in the service of cynicism, self-loathing, hopelessness and nihilism. So many questions are posed. So many avenues of travel are opened up, but peter out. So many roads to optimism or solutions turn out barred and sealed off. No answers are offered. This is a place in which cuddly dogs bite you. It's a place where victims turn out predators. It's a place where nothing is what it seems, and yet everything is exactly what you expected.

Grayson Perry, A Weed is Just a Plant in the Wrong Place (detail), 2003 (Photo C. Rhodes)

Much is made (not least by the artist himself) of Perry’s use of materials, in particular ceramic, associated with crafts rather than fine art: ‘I had set myself quite a challenge: how to get something that was materially and formally indistinguishable from the product of a long-applied art/craft tradition accepted by the gatekeepers of the fine art palaces?’[5] He was taken up by blue-chip London dealer Anthony D’Offay early on, though, and was a ‘name’ on the contemporary art circuit. While his career didn’t take off at quite the rate as some of his YBA peers, his work should be viewed in the context of others of his generation in the UK artworld: I’m thinking especially of people like Sarah Lucas and Jake and Dinos Chapman. In all of them, the work is suffused with a furiously focused, witty nihilism – like some stereotypical northern English comic – that really asks questions of the culture from which it sprang, but doesn't really offer any answers. In Perry’s case, it keeps the work uncomfortable and disturbing even as we have a good chuckle in front of it. And nowhere is it clearer than in The Vanity of Small Differences (2012), his riff on William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress.

Grayson Perry, installation shot, MCA, Sydney, with The Adoration of the Cage Fighters(from The vanity of Small Differences) (Photo C. Rhodes)

The fragment reigns supreme in Perry’s practice. It’s interesting to me that each narrative (and this is very much an art of narrative, which Roger Fry would have hated) is contained in a very ordinary, self-contained (utilitarian) object – a ceramic vessel, a plate, a blanket, a map.[6] But within the boundaries of that meta-object there is a world of constructed fragments. In most of the ceramic vessels many pictorial languages are at work as narratives build from the parts. Collage – both literal and derived – is the major driver. Everything, in a way, is collage. Perry’s ceramics are commonly decorated with a mixture of decals, drawings and decoupage elements. Works often function through visual contrast and dialectic: the faux-Japanese flowering cherry and pop skateboarders in Butterflies of Wheels (2001), or literally two-faced vessels like Mum and Dad (1994) and Head of a Neurotic (2004). In the great Walthamstow Tapestry (2009) the visual elements are held together through common stylistic handling reminiscent, on the whole, of folk art and gothic figural idioms. A 'seven-ages-of-man' piece, it is peppered with text that appears to put names to people and objects, but which is actually a list of consumer brands – perhaps, cynically, that which we are all made of in the contemporary world.

Grayson Perry, The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail), 2011 (Photo C. Rhodes)

The style of the illustrator is strong throughout. Perry is actually a very limited (though effective) draftsman, which is confirmed in the ex catalogue sketchbooks and small drawings on show at the MCA. There’s a suite of five works in the show[7] that fuse drawing, collage and watercolour in order to piece together image and create a mis-en-scène and narrative.
Grayson Perry, installation shot, MCA, Sydney, with four drawing/collage works (Photo C. Rhodes)

This is where the relationship to (or influence of) the ‘outsider art’ of Henry Darger (1892-1973) is clearest. Darger pictured a whole world using collage, tracing and watercolour on large cinemascope-proportioned sheets. His work was (now) famously a revelation to the young Grayson Perry when he saw it in London as an art student in 1979.[8] It was not only Darger’s techniques but also his images of androgynous girl heroes that appealed to the transvestite Perry. The big difference between the two is that this approach to image making is where Darger stopped; his concern was merely to establish an acceptable vehicle for illustrating the epic tale he was writing. For Perry, these drawn and collaged images are foundational; part of a process. They are pushed through to resolution in other media.

Grayson Perry, installation shot with The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011
and Map of Truths and Beliefs, 2011 (Photo C. Rhodes)

Perhaps for me the most disturbing work in the show – the apotheosis, in a way, of the fragment and the monument to barricaded roads and dead ends – is The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011). Constructed out of objects from all times and places in the British Museum collection, cast in iron, together with glass jars and rope, it is essentially a ‘ship of fools’; a final piece of celebration (of the art making genius of all cultures at all times) and simultaneous helpless, barbed snipe (at the objects’ fragmentary condition and the anonymity of their makers). Perry has a predilection for outdated and moribund object types and narratives; here the allegory of how the philosopher (and presumably artist/craftsman) is rejected by the state. And perhaps also the Ship of Fools as parody of the Catholic Church embodied in some 15th and 16th Century images since, becalmed in the long, grey gallery in Sydney, it faces the great tantric map tapestry, Map of Truths and Beliefs (2011).

Grayson Perry’s art is very much in a particular British tradition. He is a miniaturist, a modeller, and a literalist. Though there are some huge works in this show (The Walthamstow Tapestry is 300 x 1500 cm), each is an accumulation of parts. Each is interesting primarily for the way the totality of its parts are offered for reading by viewers. The work of the viewer, then, is one of imaginative narrative construction and reconstruction from the elements available in each object.

[1]Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 10 December 2015 – 1 May 2016, curated by Rachel Kent. There is an accompanying catalogue, beautifully designed by Claire Orrell: Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015.
[2]Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 23 May – 13 September 2015. Many of the works in Sydney were shown in Margate, though the MCA show is about half as big again. Reviews include Jonathan Jones’ blisteringly negative critique for The Guardian (, Alison Coles’ lukewarm summation in The Independent (, and Martin Gayford’s more positive, but largely uncritical review for The Spectator (
[3] On my second (paying) Sydney visit I never saw so many people using iPads to take photographs.
[4] I wonder also whether it had something to do with me really wanting to see work by JMW Turner. This was the Turner Contemporary after all. And Margate was one of the artist’s favourite haunts outside London. Not a Turner to be seen, though!
[5] Grayson Perry, ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’, MCA Catalogue, p.40
[6] I see Perry’s fine art ‘transgression’ much less in his use of materials and more in his choice of ‘useful’ objects, for high art seeks to transcend the utilitarian and quotidian. Vases, headscarves and even maps are obvious, but his more recent use of tapestry for wall-hangings also belongs to the class of useful things: often used in the past as wall insulation for castles in winter.
[7] All but one from the 1980s and not listed in the catalogue.
[8] The show was ‘Outsiders: an Art Without Precedent or Tradition’, Hayward Gallery, London, 8 February – 8 April 1979, co-curated by Victor Musgrave and Roger Cardinal. Darger also influenced Jake and Dinos Chapman, especially in their Tragic Anatomies series from 1996. The literature on Darger is now extensive, but in 1979 this work would have been completely new to British audiences (and was hardly known in Darger’s native USA).


ES said...

Also influenced Paula Rego -Vivian Girls

Unknown said...

Great review but more should be spoken of the performative aspect of his practice - this is his art too

Colin Rhodes said...

Thanks. Fair point, but its an aspect that isn't at all evident in this show - except for a couple of photographs in the 'shrine' section and the remnants of performance transformed into art object - Claire's Coming Out Dress and The Artist's Cloak. Be interested to hear any thoughts on that aspect of his work though.

Jan Guy said...

The title The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman would seem to indicate Perry's general 'slipperiness' in positioning himself within the art world. Perhaps, this 'ship of fools', (but also a ghost ship (cast in bronze = memorialising) mocks the way we produce, value and identify culture with its pun on the term The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (the icon of the glorification of war that is at the heart of Anglo cultural values) and also its reference to Soetsu Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman, a seminal book on the philosophy of making encountered by most ceramicists of Grayson's vintage. Positioned near the exit to the show, I wonder whether it is not only mockery, but lament for the loss of craft skills.
Regarding, the performative aspect of his oeuvre, I have always wondered (perhaps too cynically) whether his ceramics would have ever been 'elevated' to Contemporary Art if not for Claire - how could the art world resist a double whammy outsider.
Thanks for the review Colin. Enjoyed it.