By Jacky Klein
Thames & Hudson £35, 256 pages
FT Bookshop price: £28
In 2003, Grayson Perry, resplendent in puff-sleeved purple satin Shirley Temple dress, frilly socks and little-girl buckle shoes, rose as his female alter ego Claire to accept the Turner Prize. The British public fell in love with a living artist as it had not done since its embrace of young blond bombshell David Hockney, 40 years before.
Injecting an award that was turning moribund and abstruse with his humour, warmth and personality, Perry saved the Turner Prize from itself. He stood out as a master craftsman with a blazing contemporary agenda; he took on class, sex, violence and urban disintegration as if Asbo were his middle name, yet was also unafraid of beauty.
“Some people say my pots are beautiful, and beauty can be a bit of a swear word in contemporary art. It is as if we are shocked by it,” he said the morning after the award, by which time even the Daily Mail (“Frocky Horror Show”) was eating out of his hand.
Nevertheless, critical debate has been slow and Jacky Klein’s lavish monograph is the first major publication on the artist. Clear, generous and insightful, it positions Perry astutely in both historical and contemporary contexts.
Born in Chelmsford in 1960, Perry looked destined to be Essex Man incarnate: working-class, skimpily educated, from a broken home – all traits shared with Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Each brought from that background a freedom about making art, a boldness in using unexpected media and a rough slang vernacular that transformed British culture in the 1990s.
Awkward juxtapositions remain Perry’s stock-in-trade: his pots, exquisitely made and referencing classically decorative objects, are packed with disturbing imagery – maimed children, aborted foetuses, swastikas. A pit bull terrier tops a delicate chinoiserie surface of bike riders and flowers in “i was an angry working class man”. The fairytale cast in “Rumpleforeskin” turns out to star a masturbating devil. “Precious Boys” copies a Japanese art nouveau vase, replacing lily-pads and darting carp with transvestites and jet planes.
Hundreds of works are elaborated by Perry’s candid explanations of technical production and emotional impetus. “My sexual fantasies slightly appall me,” he confides about “i hate you, i hate myself”, a pot depicting sado-masochistic sex. “I think, why do you want to put yourself in that position? Have some dignity Grayson! And yet the opposite of dignity is what turns me on.”
Perry began his career mocking the fetishisation of the kiln, insisting that “I’m a conceptual artist masquerading as a craftsman”, only to redirect his hostility, as conceptual art came to dominate the mainstream, against its “mechanical deadness and its celebration of tricksy ideas”.
He was, of course, always a truculent hybrid – a thinking craftsman, creating quintessentially English narrative art, dense with detail, close to caricature. Klein traces his bawdy humour to Hogarth, Gillray and Cruikshank, and is pertinent too on the heritage of Victorian realism. One of Perry’s favourite paintings is William Frith’s “The Railway Station”, that panorama of English technological and social progress, where all classes mingle on a train platform – yet remain self-contained, oblivious to one another.
Like Frith, Perry verges on the sentimental and is no innovator, but his work similarly fixes contemporary anxieties about sex and class. Perry’s alter-ego Claire and his transvestite imagery may reflect his need to attract adoration after an unloved childhood but they also embody 21st-century insecurities about masculinity, and the role of boys and men, in an increasingly feminising, de-industrialised culture. In unravelling the mystique behind Perry, Klein shows why this unlikely artist is, in fact, most likely a national treasure.
Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic
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