Review by Liz Dexter
Grayson Perry has achieved the status of National Treasure in the hearts and minds of a large proportion of the British public, writing and broadcasting on masculinity, class, art and the State of the Nation and winning prestigious prizes (including the 2003 Turner Prize and most recently the Erasmus Prize). This attractive and well-put-together book and exhibition at the Holburne Museum (and, sadly at a couple of others this year which I imagine might not happen now; the original exhibition has been extended into the New Year) examine Perry’s early years, when he was just starting out as a potter, learning his art and indeed his craft, feeling a bit antagonistic about it definitely being ART and when he was perhaps more defiant and transgressional in his pieces.
After a foreword by Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum, where he moved from Tate, London, the book gathers together two essays on Perry’s early pieces, by Andrew Wilson (Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art at Tate Britain) and Catrin Jones (Curator at the Holburne Museum, including of this exhibition), and a piece by Perry himself considering the works and their place in his oeuvre. Then there are nearly 100 pages of images of the art works themselves, often from various angles, several of them accompanied by notes by Perry about his inspirations then and feelings about them now.
The Holburne Museum in Bath put the exhibition together because of the “interesting resonance” between Perry’s work and their early examples of European and East Asian ceramics, and he also talks in his commentary about his dialogue with pieces from other cultures and eras and attempts to replicate some of their techniques. The dates of the collection range from his first ceramics (although including sketches and other ephemera around them) up until his first exhibition at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1994, his move to being more of the Establishment. Perry himself pointed out that these were his “pre-therapy years”, as he started on a course of psychotherapy in 1998.
Andrew Wilson looks at the development of Perry’s work, his developing skill and his changing relationship with his transvestite alter-ego, Claire. Catrin Jones looks more closely at particular works, pulling out the fact that “all the ingredients that still define his striking and varied practice were there from the outset”. She also looks at the development of his work over time, and how since his therapy he has developed a softened approach to some subjects, for example femininity, and “a journey towards understanding through analysis”. She also takes issue with Jacky Klein’s claim that Perry ignored the history of clay when he first started using it – I have Klein’s new book to read and it will be interesting to see if she’s still taking that attitude. The final sentences of Jones’ essay sum up her exploration of Perry’s iconography:
The raw explosiveness of the early works presents an unedited Grayson Perry. The discovery of archetype as narrative has enabled Perry to master the use of autobiography as analysis, and to explore the personal through his persona rather than through his personality.
Perry puts it more simply in his essay: “This exhibition covering the years 1982-94 shows me fumbling towards becoming the artist that I am today” (p. 59) and he shares that his very first “recognizably traditional ceramic”, reproduced here, “laid out the ingredients for my entire career: tradition, subversion, decoration” (p. 60). He also has something to say about his chosen medium which I think might have worked to his benefit throughout this career of his, as he is still known for his pots and large ceramic pieces which do still sneak in some pretty provocative imagery and ideas: “I was an angry young m an and I liked the fact that no matter how offensive the images I used the fact they were on pots somehow neutered my provocations” although in fact some of his fellow art students did complain about some of his controversial imagery.
I loved reading Perry’s dialogue with his earlier self and his earlier work. He admits in his essay that he hasn’t seen many of the works since they were sold decades ago, and had often not kept records of them – “it has been wonderful to be reacquainted with the outpourings of a different me”, and he notices that he is more forgiving of them and compassionate about himself than he was at the time. Talking in the illustrated section about one of his sets of press-moulded plates with images of Essex, he delightfully says, “To tell you the truth, I am mystified as to what I meant by the text [‘The terrible unnatural forms of immature nature’] and how it relates to the Nazi insignia. Perhaps it was a dark premonition of Brexit!”. What a treat to read the artist’s reactions to his own former self, seeming now so distant.
As befits a Thames & Hudson book, the production values are superb, with great sharp illustrations, mostly in colour. At the back, there’s a chronology that sets Perry in the context of world events and artistic happenings in the UK, a bibliography and an index.
Liz Dexter has been inspired by Grayson Perry’s Art Club on a Monday to do the odd sketch or photograph. She writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Catrin Jones and Chris Stephens (eds.), Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years (Thames & Hudson, 2020). 978-0500094198, 176 pp., col. ill., hardback.
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