Transvestite potter or tireless social crusader? The enigma of Grayson Perry enchants Waldemar Januszczak
It has always been clear that the transvestite potter was more than a transvestite potter. One decent look at any of his wares makes it obvious he’s an angry and imaginative social accuser who’s saying it with pots. This peculiar business of putting on dresses and presenting himself in his alter ego, Claire, the girl inside Grayson, could be a reflection of some immensely imaginative gender confusion, but it might also rank as one of the smartest marketing ploys dreamt up by an artist in modern times. I’m not sure. I’m not sure about lots of aspects of Perry. He’s a damned elusive artistic presence.
His new show at the Victoria Miro gallery continues to give us the artistic runaround. It’s called, would you believe, The Charms of Lincolnshire, and from the moment you walk into it, you’re unsure what you’ve walked into. Is this a Grayson Perry exhibition? Or a room at The London Dungeon? Are we talking here about rural charms as in Constable? Or are we talking about the charms you wear around your neck to ward off spookies? Hmm.
This unusual event was originally organised by an ambitious new gallery in Lincoln called, with appropriate confusion, The Collection. Perry was asked to select some objects from the collection (see what I mean?) of Lincolnshire’s folk museums and to combine them with his pots in a display that lurches seamlessly between past and present. I don’t know whose idea it was, the gallery’s or the artist’s, but it turns out to have been a bloody good one.
Let loose on the contents of Lincolnshire’s museums, Perry wisely and instinctively chose to focus on village objects relating to death. Thus, in the middle of the gallery, whopping and unmissable, is a huge black hearse, its shafts akimbo, like a giant spider in the middle of a web. What a spooky tumbrel. In front of it, a rusty iron coffin appears initially to hail from the same black neck of the rural woods. Lying on the top is a dead child with its arms crossed, surrounded by all manner of allegorical bric-a-brac in that busy style favoured by folk artists. A helpful guide to the show, drawn by Perry himself, tells us that in fact this tiny iron coffin is his own handiwork, and is called The Angel of the South. It’s intended to be “a non triumphal monument to all the children who have died too soon”. Although death is the show’s general theme, the death of children is its specific focus. “The biscuit tin idyll of cosy village Britain is luckily in the past, for it was a candlelit, back- breaking, sexist, tubercular child-death hell,” laments Perry. His aim is to conjure up the moods of this grim rustic past and to involve it, you feel, in his own story. Brought up in rural Essex, he knows the village mindset from an insider’s point of view, and disapproves of it from an insider’s point of view.
Perry’s rural lament kicks off with a set of faded photographs of what seem to be hard times in Lincolnshire in the 19th century. The men are in the fields; the women are bent double. Look more carefully, however, and you’ll notice that the grim example of Lincolnshire gothic in a bonnet sitting in front of the fire is Grayson in one of his dresses. And the nearby couple burying their child in a field are Grayson again, and his iron sculpture of The Angel of the South.That’s how the show works: by constantly doublecrossing you. An array of plangent objects that might normally languish in stacks and cupboards, unseen and unlistened to, have been yanked out of profound provincial obscurity and given a knife-sharp role to play in a spiky 21st-century examination of rustic unhappiness; and an artist many would have had down as a gimmicky urban attention-seeker gets the chance to display the breadth of his rural knowledge and the extent of his social empathy.
I don’t usually like deliberately twilit exhibitions, because they can seem extra-phoney. Is Perry trying to highlight the ersatz horror of those creepy re-creations of other eras you get in folk museums, in which glass-eyed mannequins are trapped for eternity in rubbishy simulations? Probably not. But the melodramatic darkness does its job, transporting you in an instant from the quotidian daylight of Islington to this extraordinary Hogwartsian attic, located somewhere between the Victorian era and our own, in which modern art and village junk have joined hands across the ages to accuse our rural past of being cruel, uptight, murderous and particularly nasty to children.
Over there, some vicious mantraps used to snare poachers. Over here, a lark trap, for catching songbirds. On this wall, a stack of Bibles. On that wall, an array of shotguns. But the show is also patently enamoured of village crafts and skills. A picture of Lincoln cathedral made of human hair may be creepy, but what amazing work. Perry admires the sad samplers stitched by lonely country mothers to commemorate the deaths of their children so much, he’s designed one himself.
It’s for sale in the gallery.
Thus, this brilliant show is interesting on so many levels. On its Going for a Song level, it’s packed with mysterious village objects whose function you can guess at.
On a craft level, it celebrates the untutored production of amazing things. On a psychological level, it finds so much evil lurking in the corners of the rural mindset. And on the most important level of all in this context, the artistic level, it includes such concrete proof of Perry’s own touch.
His most gorgeous pot is called The Lincoln Diptych. It glows from afar, a resplendent vase in gold and blue. The title suggests the Wilton Diptych, that lovely medieval painting of the enthroned Madonna and Child in the National Gallery. So you lean in for a better look, expecting innocence and chivalry. But this gorgeous golden pot mugs you as fiercely as a violent stranger on a rural towpath. You’re confronted by a family horror show: a grimacing Victorian monster of a mother with her legs wide open, giving birth to a ghastly man-child with breasts. Looking down on this hellish birth are two silhouettes of spiky village chavs with fags, a him and a her, representing, I suppose, our particular contribution to the rural idyll. Where the Wilton Diptych has beautiful ranks of angels, The Lincoln Diptych has an array of police murder boards appealing for witnesses. Welcome to modern Britain.
It’s always been clear that Perry is more than a transvestite potter. It hasn’t been as clear as this that he’s the devilish offspring of a blessed union between Freud and Hogarth.