The figure of Grayson Perry can often eclipse his art. In his public, female persona ‘Clare’, it is often questionable as to what extent the man is an extension of the work – or vice-versa. My own, and only, experience of him prior to this exhibition was a curation of the Royal Academy’s 2018 Summer Exhibition. To date, it remains my favourite. There he managed to confer the ease, colour and vigour that characterises much of his life into the building and curated an exhibition which was thoroughly enjoyable and completely individual.
However, this admiration has always been tempered for me by a slight wariness. As a Turner Prize winner, he carries all of the connotations that the perennially controversial prize consciously surrounds itself with (including, in this year’s shortlist, a robot as an artist). The Turner Prize often doesn’t so much push the boundaries of art as ignores them, acting in its favour when it gains media attention and as a major repulsion for the general public when the prize goes to the most shocking work. So, going into this exhibition with a quiet anticipation and not a little worry, Perry needed to not only demonstrate his talent but also to justify his success and art. This pressure is then intensified by the fact that this will be the first exhibition many will see in a (hopefully) post-lockdown world. It’s a great relief that he succeeds in all areas.
The exhibition’s focus, as the informative programme notes state, runs from 1982-1994, or the ‘ pre-therapy years ’, and as such acts as a catalogue of the artist’s earliest works. Many critics have lamented in recent years the relative unpopularity of ceramic as an art form: Grayson Perry is perhaps the best contemporary demonstrator of this oversight. Although the casual viewer may be put off by the chronological focus which almost presupposes an appreciation of the artist, there is no need to be an aficionado to enjoy this exhibition, which is consciously kitsch, witty and above all else, fun. The York Gallery has been able to curate a comprehensive yet thematically coherent selection of pieces, dealing principally with masculinity, pop culture and Perry’s own Essex upbringing, all with self-conscious satire. Here are plates, vases, masks, Grecian urns – and even a cat house, the only piece in wood. This is no small feat and required coordination between many private collectors to draw these pieces together, as well as multiple museums. I would highly recommend anyone to go and see it if only for this fact; a collection of this nature is a rare thing for a living artist, speaking to Perry’s exceptional talent. It is unknowable if or when something of this kind will occur any time soon.
Perry’s strengths lie in his use of colour and perhaps most interestingly, wording. He manages (surprisingly, given his predilection for colour) to use largely muted base colours, especially in the Essex pieces, in a way which manages to be striking. The writing on certain pieces enhances the art, if not actually becoming it. They are purposefully rough in places, with cracks, dips and asymmetry, something which speaks to this period in the artist’s life as one of learning and progression. These techniques all allow him to infuse his personality into his artwork in a very plain way, something many artists struggle to do. These make them very intimate and personable as if engaged in conversation with Perry himself and resist straying into pretension, which I’m sure many will appreciate.
Perhaps the best quality of this exhibition is that absolute accessibility. There is no need to know anything going in; the references are obvious and the messages plain. The medium of ceramic brings the art, as objects, close to home, and the way in which he subverts expectations about the nature of ceramic is so plain as to be a key aspect of the works taken as a whole. This is Perry, the outsider artist we are dealing with. It is clear that the York Gallery understands the art well, and they deserve commendation for preventing it from losing any of its popular appeal in the over-intellectualising approach which so many galleries fall into the trap of. You certainly don’t need to be a Grayson Perry fan to appreciate the obvious talent on display – though you’ll certainly want to be by the end of it.