Little did Grayson Perry know as a boy that the most eye-catching move he could make for his future career was to put on a frock and tie a bow into his hair. That is not to say that his exquisite vases, (which have sold for as much as €200,000) would not eventually have brought him success, but maybe not the Turner nor the 2021 Erasmus prize. One shall never know how to interpret his alter ego – is it pure provocation, the attention seeking of a narcissist or a handy device to steal the scene wherever he appears. By his own admission, New York is no fun because he gets no shock reactions.
His empathy for the disenfranchised has always led me to see him as a good guy with a social conscience and allowed me to separate his antics from the work.
The 2021 Erasmus Prize has earned him increased attention here in the Netherlands, resulting in a smallish exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Included is his huge, iconic pink motorbike with which he travelled across Southern Germany, with his childhood fetish teddy bear named Alan Measles at the back, mounted in a heavily decorated glass shrine inspired by the Pope mobile.
Since Perry shot to fame for his vases he has broadened out into giant tapestries, TV programs interrogating the kind of society that does not make it into the celebrity circuit and various art-related charity activities.
As usual, in this exhibition I gravitated towards the vases which Perry deliberately shapes in the classical style to seduce the conventional eye, but boy, what do you see when you get close up? The artist, who became known as the “cross-dressing potter” but who claims he never wants to pass for a woman, uses his work to shock. There is his social comment on the obesity epidemic, his Brexit vases with depressed looking people and discredited politicians, Perry’s teddy bear watches the kneeling figure of Donald Trump in horror, a couple in full fellatio, as well as messaging of all kinds.
Here the main vase, sublime in its usual craftsmanship, depicts Perry’s wife Philippa in a dilapidated wooden shack, having given birth to teddy bear Alan Measles, lying on the floor, umbilical cord attached. In a dark space behind her lurks the ‘normal’, dishevelled Perry and in the foreground his alter ego Claire in full dress weeping over the new-born. It is a deeply personal work which to me seemed to illustrate the dilemma of a split personality, as well as an undigested, child-like attachment to the soft toy. Whatever it means, it is great and significant work. Perhaps in future centuries shards of Grayson Perry’s work will be excavated and people will marvel at our culture as we did at the Grecian vases. Well-worth the trip to the museum. Astrid Burchardt, 29th January 2022
The Grayson Perry show can be seen at the Kunstmuseum until 3rd April