Olde English Art

In a move to preempt controversy and calm things down at the media launch of his Museum of Contemporary Art show in Sydney, Grayson Perry offered an apology to Indigenous Australian artists. Back in October, the Turner prize-winning artist had said he didn’t believe Australian Aboriginal art was contemporary art and therefore it didn’t belong in a contemporary art museum.

Suitably chastised by the storm of response his comments attracted in Australia, Perry said he was sorry anyone had taken offence and that he was learning about the context of Aboriginal art. No matter how sincere Perry’s apology might have been, he seemed genuinely perplexed that what works as an off the cuff comment in the UK might not play so well in Australia.

Perry is a skillful communicator. His Channel 4 TV series and BBC Radio 4 Reith lectures have proven hugely popular with the general public, striking a chord with those who like contemporary art but distrust the art world.

Perry’s shtick is that he’s an outsider who has stormed the academy with art that wouldn’t normally be accepted, using mediums such as ceramics and tapestries along with more familiar art world offerings such as drawing, etching, sculptures, collage and performance.

The strange thing about Perry’s narrative is that his statements on Australian Aboriginal art so plainly contradicted his own story. If he can get in with his radically unhip art works, why can’t anyone else? Well, there’s the thing: the global international contemporary art world welcomes self-declared outsiders with warm hugs and survey shows in its biggest and plushest museums. It congratulates itself on its inclusiveness by welcoming any form, any medium, and any artist.

Which brings us back to Perry in Sydney. The art in this show is indivisible from the man who made it, each work celebrating his subjectivity, fantasies and identities in a way that is almost overwhelming on such a large scale. Perry’s work allegorises life in contemporary Britain, drawing on folk art and craft traditions to create some eye-catching and decorative works.

The Walthamstow Tapestry (2009) presents the story of a man’s life from birth to death as he journeys across a landscape dotted with the brand names of a typical English high street – fast-food chains, electronics giants, supermarkets – the design and execution reminiscent of a medieval tapestry, only one with motorbikes and Louis Vuitton handbags.

The six-part tapestry cycle The Vanity of Small Differences (2012) updates William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress (1733) with the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, a computer software millionaire who dies a tragic death when he crashes his sports car into a lamppost. For this, and in other works too, Perry’s drawing style is reminiscent of cartooning and street art, an ungodly mix ubiquitous on cafe walls the world over.

More convincing and far less abrasive are Perry’s mind maps – allegorical drawings and etchings of make-believe lands that bring to mind the illustrations for Thomas More’s Utopia but populated with contemporary figures and landscapes. In A Map of Days (2013), a street called Paralysed cuts through a park and hills labeled Scant Comfort and Carry on Regardless, running over a small river named Tragic Waste. Map of An Englishman (2004) is more abstract, with a land of Dreams dotted with small towns such as Semantic Engine and Victoriana.

These map works succeed because they let the viewer into their mysteries as an equal player, where much of Perry’s other work is overburdened by self-consciousness and faux seriousness.

Perry’s most celebrated works are his ceramics, big pots in various shades of black and gold that chart personal stories of his transvestism and alienation from mainstream British society, works that carry more than a hint of sorrow and bitter sarcasm. These are pleasant works that retain an aura of high seriousness and, given the surge in popularity of contemporary ceramics in Australia right now, Perry is sure to find an appreciative audience for this autobiography in glazed and fired clay.

But they leave me cold. A line from the film Search & Destroy [directed by the American painter David Salle], pops into my head: “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting”. With Perry’s art his point of view is so much part of the work that if you don’t agree with it or think it’s particularly funny, there’s not much else there.

To enter My Pretty Little Art Career in an Australian gallery is to be confronted by a kind of torture. Perry’s noble struggle to establish his identity as an artist and an Englishman have become the platform on which an already healthy ego has blossomed into something more triffid-like. Piled on top of all this is a suffocating sense of Little England, like a wet boarding house blanket on your face.

Only on those rare occasions when Perry’s works stray from this narrative does the audience get some room to breathe. Having said that, of course this show is the perfect summer blockbuster and it’s going to be huge.

Published as Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career review – a suffocating dose of Little England, Guardian Australia, December 2015.

©Andrew Frost, 2015

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