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Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years – Art Exhibition Review

Untitled, glazed ceramic vase, 1987, Grayson Perry.
Photo credit: Mia Gane

Written by Mia Gane

Grayson Perry is famous for his controversial art that addresses prejudice, gender issues and English cultural weaknesses. As he is such a well-known artist, I have never thought about his earlier career and development into the artist he is today. This exhibition at York Art Gallery explores that earlier work and the development of his transvestite alter ego, Claire.

The work spans from the years 1982 to 1994 and has never been exhibited together before, thus the nickname ‘the lost pots’. They show Perry’s experiments with pottery while he was living in a squat in Camden, North London and his use of the medium to explore radical issues and reflect stories from the world around him. In the piece below the pot becomes Perry’s diary, talking about a time out in Soho, that unsettles the usual decorative form of the vase with immediacy and authenticity.

Artefact for People who have no Identity, glazed ceramic plate, 1994, Grayson Perry.
Photo credit: Mia Gane

Within this exhibition, Perry begins his exploration of identity that seems to have continued in his work today. The plate above highlights many techniques and ideas Perry was using and exploring throughout this exhibition. When Perry first started he often used plates instead of pots as they were easier to make, they acted as a drawing board. For Perry plates were his sketches and then pots were his canvases. This plate makes me feel rather unsettled and distressed. It is a muddled piece with lots of different imagery. Perry calls this piece Artefact for People who have no Identity but I believe that both figures in the piece do have identities, but confused identities. The front figure looks quite sad and what he is wearing is dress-like. Plausibly this figure is the side of Perry that wanted to wear women’s clothes, something he explores further in the work in this exhibition. As this figure has his hand covering himself it suggests the shame Perry probably felt he had to feel, particularly following his father and stepmother rejecting him after they found out he was a transvestite. In the background of this figure is a pram, further suggesting that this figure is feminine and maternal. The other figure behind is dressed in a more masculine way, expressing the other masculine side of Perry. Behind this figure is trucks and tools, also reflecting masculine tropes. The pairs’ hair is juxtaposed, with the front figures being short and traditionally masculine and the background figures being long, traditionally more feminine. This illustrates how Perry wanted to blur the lines of gender. This blurring of gender lines is reflected throughout Perry’s work both in this exhibition and in his later works.

Grayson Perry dressed as Claire holding teddy, ‘Alan Measles’
Photo credit: The Northern Echo

Perry’s alter ego Claire is the thing that I, as I am sure most people, know him for. The exhibition shows his obsession with exploring identity, particularly his interest in wearing women’s clothes. The picture below features some of the artist’s exploration into who he wanted his alter ego to be. Early photos of Claire reflect a stylish, early 90s middle-aged woman, while his later look became more childish and playful, like in the picture above. He was influenced by the looks of Margaret Thatcher, Diana, the Princess of Wales, and office girls. He loved the hairdos of newsreaders, the back left plate featuring this look. The plates in the picture below show his fascination with the ‘stronger women’ and how he built his character, Claire. The back right plate is a homage to April Ashley, one of the earliest British females to have sex reassignment surgery. He calls that piece April Ashley in Full Sail, reflecting his respect for other women prepared to break normal gender boundaries. He is suggesting that she is thriving and is congratulating her. The front three pieces are a bit more a reflection of himself and who he wanted to be. The first one on the left he calls Self-Portrait Cracked and Warped. This piece reflects how broken he felt in his own identity. The crack was an accident but Perry saw it as one that enriched and strengthened the piece. This piece makes me feel quite uncomfortable, not only because of the strong crack but also because the face and writing are facing opposite directions. This suggests how muddled Perry felt about his identity. The second plate is called Claire as a Soldier and shows how he wanted his character, Claire, to be strong. Furthermore, soldiers are traditionally seen as men, this reflecting how Perry wanted to play and blur the lines of gender. The third plate is unnamed and does seem to be the most confused. Each image on this last plate seems almost random and reflects the uniqueness, confusion and originality Perry felt in his identity.

Back left, Newsreader, glazed ceramic plate, 1990. Back right, April Ashley in Full Sail, glazed ceramic plate, 1984. Front left, Self-Portrait Cracked and Warped, glazed ceramic dish, 1985. Front centre, Claire as a Soldier, glazed ceramic plate, 1987. Front right, Untitled, glazed terracotta dish, 1988. Grayson Perry.
Picture Credit: Mia Gane

I was first properly introduced to Perry through Grayson’s Art Club on All 4, which started during the pandemic. This show featured him and his wife, Philippa Perry (a psychotherapist), attempting to use art and allow others to use art to deal with the pandemic and bring the nation together. Each week they would pick a theme and people would send art that they would review and they both would do art also. I found this show emotional, amusing and interesting. Perry showed to be quirky and charismatic and I found him very likeable and compelling. Throughout it, Perry made references to his unsteady childhood that was also displayed in this art gallery. His father left when he was about five years old as his mother was having an affair with the milkman. His stepfather was then very abusive and his home life was unhappy. To escape this, he created an imaginary world that had his childhood teddy, Alan Measles. References to his teddy are made in lots of his artworks, for example in the piece pictured below, and he often holds it or refers to it in his All 4 tv show.

Childhood Trauma Manifesting itself in Later Life, glazed ceramic vase, 1992. Grayson Perry.
Picture Credit: Mia Gane

This last pot suggests how broken Perry feels following his childhood. The figure in the centre is monster-like and disturbing. The covering of the female figure’s face suggests that he feels his childhood lacked a maternal figure. His later characterisation of Claire is childlike, this further suggests that he feels he lacks a mother and therefore a proper childhood. The teddy bear trope, used throughout his work, furthers this idea that he wants a proper childhood. The teddy bear on this pot acts as a break from the rest of the more disturbing imagery on the pot, similar to how Perry’s teddy Alan served as a break to him in his traumatic childhood. This pot makes me feel uncomfortable, as did a lot of the work in this exhibition, contrasting too much of Perry’s later brighter work. 

As someone who already knew a bit about Grayson Perry, this art gallery revealed a new side to him and made me see how he developed from the artist he is in this exhibition to the artist he is now. This exhibition is a great introduction to Perry, it has his earliest scrapbooks, his use of plates as a drawing board, the development of his pots and earns, and his exploration of dark and crude imagery along with playful and childish imagery. If you are in York I would certainly recommend checking this exhibition out, it will not only introduce you to Perry but also intrigue you to learn more about him. 

Written by Mia Gane

To read a different interpretation of the exhibition, see James Stewart’s article: Grayson Perry at York Gallery: Two Perspectives

The Grayson Perry: The pre-therapy Years exhibition is on display between 28 May 2021 and 5 September 2021. For more information see: https://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/exhibition/grayson-perry-the-pre-therapy-years/