“It’s about time a transvestite potter from Essex won the Turner,” declared Grayson Perry as he accepted Britain’s leading contemporary art award in 2003, in a frilly purple Little Bo Peep outfit, dressed as his feminine alter-ego character “Claire.”
Over a decade later, in December last year, the sharp-tongued cultural critic and acclaimed British artist arrived in Sydney with a suitcase full of only Claire’s skimpiest outfits to ward off the summer heat—the latter of which he refers to as the “enemy of drag.” Perry was visiting the city to open his own blockbuster retrospective at Sydney’s Musem of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), entitled “Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career.” Curated by MCA chief curator Rachel Kent, the exhibition is the first for the artist in the Southern Hemisphere.
“My Pretty Little Art Career” reveals Perry’s oeuvre to be even more impressive than his gender-bending wardrobe. An array of ceramics, sculptures, drawings, prints and tapestries was spread across an entire floor of the museum. All of which proved to be rich in virtuoso detail, swimming with social critique and carrying the sardonic humor that is characteristic of the artist’s creative fingerprint.
Among the most striking of these pieces is a series of six enormous tapestries called “The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal” (2012), which follows the life journey of a protagonist named Tim Rakewell—inspired by the eponymous character in English artist William Hogarth’s painting series “A Rake’s Progress” (1732–33)—beginning from his upbringing in a working class family to climbing the social ladder to his eventual death inside a Ferrari. The modern-day tragedy of class mobility is depicted using the historical, stately and rich medium of tapestry. Each two-by-four-meter piece, made up of wool, silk, cotton, acrylic and polyester, are woven with extreme detail and executed in loud colors through the use of machines. Upon close inspection, one observes that a portrait of the artist himself is featured in each tapestry. Replete with corporate brands—of cigarettes and fast-food chains, and from advertisements, fashion and tabloid magazines—the world’s commercialization invades each picture, and moments in Tim Rakewell’s life, and the pursuit of these goods and lifestyle inevitably causes the protagonist’s tragic demise. In an interview with UK’s Channel Four, Perry explained: “I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design, but for this project I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive.”
The adjoining room at the MCA is full of classically shaped urns. All are alluringly decorated with photo-transfers, rich texture markings, complex glazing techniques and subversive—or as the artist calls them, “spiky”—comments on societal injustices and hypocrisies. For example, in a striking mix of content and form, his Rosetta Vase (2011) imitates an anatomical diagram of a human body. The bright yellow-and-blue vase depicts the commercialized innards of the subject with organs labeled with words such as “Celebrity,” “Career-enhancement” and “Vanity.”
Ceramics is where Perry began his artistic practice, due to what he saw as its lack of pretension and also for the genre’s place in history. The “beauty” of the medium aligns with the artist’s flamboyant resistance to the art world’s aversion to “pretty” work, encapsulated by Duchamp’s mantra that “Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided.” In fact, Perry is so determined to open up the “mafia” or “inward-looking” club that is the art world to the general public that he ran a series of lectures for the Tate Modern entitled “Playing to the Gallery.” He spoke “as a foot soldier” of the “asset class” that is the contemporary art world, as an endeavor to arm those who are not part of its club with the tools to enjoy art.
Visitors of the MCA were absorbed in the narrative of each richly finished work. The sight of the audience engagement in itself speaks to Perry’s wide appeal. An irreverent observer of the social scene, Perry has garnered the acclaim of the public, his fellow artists and curators. To quote the artist himself, Perry’s work “sneaks up on people and seduces them, and I like that.”
“Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career” is on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, until May 1, 2016.