Reviewed by Liz Dexter
This sumptuous book, that has a lot of content, in terms of both text and image, is a real treat – the only book so far to cover Perry’s entire career in glowing detail, and one that includes a great deal of input from Perry himself. This new edition includes two new chapters, one on the House for Essex , which Perry designed and did a series on in 2015, and one on Identity Politics , covering new work made from 2013 to 2019.
Jacky Klein is an art historian and broadcaster who specialises in contemporary art; she has also taught at a number of arts institutions and this shows in her ability to pull concepts together and explain them so that the layperson can grasp them. Each long chapter has a few pages of introduction from Klein and then a series of art works reproduced in stunning colour and detail with good, meaty commentary from Perry. Grayson Perry probably needs no introduction, especially since his extremely popular Grayson Perry’s Art Club, which cheered the nation in the first weeks of lockdown (I was thrilled to see a copy of this book and its predecessors in the background of his studio during the series!), and he has made several TV series where he’s used encounters with the real people of the UK to produce art works. His provocative work includes large pots but also smaller pieces, statues, plates, prints and tapestries, and is considered accessible and therefore has something to say about the art world and its “sniffiness about popularity”. He’s also of course known as the “transvestite potter” and what is sometimes described as his alter ego, Claire, and his teddy bear icon Alan Measles are discussed amidst the wider variety of his work.
After the introduction, which outlines Perry’s life and themes, we have chapters on such areas as Class, War and Conflict, Sex and Gender and Pilgrimage, with works discussed in the text and then discussed again by Perry in the more highly illustrated section. It covers over 200 of his most important works. From his earliest works he’s delighted in approaching the transgressive and shocking, and here it all is in detail, his delight in going back to these pieces for the book palpable. Because this is a long-term study of the work, we can find a pot from 1990 on the opposite page to one from 2007, showing developments but also themes in the work, and this is beautifully drawn together.
While we’ve seen just the early work in the book Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years (reviewed here), in this work we follow Perry through his years of psychotherapy and his evolving relationship with Claire, both in person and represented via his art works. There’s discussion of his use of this aspect of his life as part of his “brand” by the savvy Klein, although she is at pains to point out that Claire is an authentic aspect of Perry’s own self rather than a marketing ploy. There are some great images of Claire in the book to complement the representations of her on the art works and Perry also discusses how he works to undermine gender and art categories:
Pottery is often regarded as feminine and so my work is implicitly about questioning male superiority, and questioning art’s habit of falling into rigid categories” (caption to his pot “He Came Not in Triumph”, a “mix-up of the Nativity story, where the child is with his father instead of his mother“)
The chapter on Pilgrimages brings a fascinating dimension to the book, revealing the influence of Perry’s cycling tours from Sussex to Madrid or along the Santiago de Compostela trail on his art. The tapestry work “The Vanity of Small Differences” which I was lucky enough to see on tour at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is treated in great detail in this chapter; one of the great things about this book is the room it has to go into the very nitty gritty of pieces in this way. This is also highly evident in the chapter on “A House for Essex” which manages to present huge amounts of information about the house he built for Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project and its exterior and interior with moving musings from Perry about its relationship to his relationship with his own mother. The photography in this section is again stunning.
Coming right up to date in the final chapter with Perry’s Brexit and identity politics pieces, and his pair of prints, “Sponsored by You” and “Selfie with Political Causes” which take two views of humanity, basically, this is a wonderful, generous and colourful journey through Perry’s life and art which can be enjoyed on a detailed or surface level. Naturally, it’s a beautifully produced large-format paperback with French flaps, notes, a chronology, a list of public collections holding Perry’s work, his exhibitions, including the ones he’s curated, a bibliography and an index. A great gift that would be appreciated by anyone with more than a passing interest in Perry and his work. Thank you again to Thames & Hudson for allowing me free rein in your catalogue!
Liz Dexter has been a Perry fan for a number of years and he’s one of her favourite people to transcribe. She writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Jacky Klein (and Grayson Perry), Grayson Perry (new ed.) (Thames & Hudson, 2020). 978-0500295236, 364 pp., col. ill., paperback (publ. May 2020)
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