I remember the shock of seeing Grayson Perry’s work for the first time at an exhibition in London. What appeared to be beautiful, classically made vases turned out, upon closer inspection, to be decorated with images of abused and neglected children. Perry was one of the first to use ceramics as a medium for his message. Until then, ceramics had been more or less despised by the art world as mere decorative or useful objects. Today, however, many artists have turned to them to express themselves in a huge variety of ways, perhaps inspired by Perry’s example. Perry himself has branched out since those days and works in many other media. The current exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris, “Grayson Perry: Vanity, Identity, Sexuality,” provides an overview of what he’s been up to since his career took off in the early 2000s.
Although much of the work of the famously cross-dressing Perry has serious subject matter – gender issues, sexuality, politics, class as a social determinant, etc. – his works are produced in a great spirit of fun, with plenty of humor and bright colors.
His transvestism is a subject in itself, and the works shown at the Monnaie include some of the hilarious flouncy little-girl dresses he and others have designed for his female persona, Claire, in which he is often photographed. The highly articulate Perry (quotations are scattered around the exhibition, and the booklet given to visitors contains his texts about the works), says that for him transvestism is “not about pretending to be a woman,” but “about putting on the clothes that made me feel the way I wanted to feel.” The actual dresses and the beautiful “Artist’s Robe” he made to identify himself as a creative person are displayed like so many papal vestments in the Vatican Treasury.
Perry draws much of his subject matter from his own life. One major piece in the show is inspired by his interest in motorcycles. His custom-built “Kenilworth AM1” (2010), displayed in a section on masculinity, is a kitschy monster, painted in newborn shades of blue and pink, and decorated with sexual symbols (look closely at the seat), hearts, teddy bears and such injunctions as “patience” and “humility.” In Perry’s world, these are the new attributes of masculinity.
The teddy bear, by the way, named Alan Measles, pops up often in his work. It is a relic of his difficult working-class childhood, where 12-year-old cross-dressers were not well-received, especially by his bullying stepfather, and serves as a representative of the new, gentler kind of manliness the artist advocates.
Posted on the wall of the exhibition is Perry’s manifesto: “Men, sit down for your rights! / The right to be vulnerable / The right to be weak / The right to be wrong / The right to be intuitive / The right not to know / The right to be uncertain / The right to be flexible / The right not to be ashamed of any of these things.”
One can’t help but admire Perry for his sense of humor and his hard work: in spite of his fame, he continues to work mainly in an artisanal fashion, although the complex tapestries he designs, many of which are included in the show, are generated by computers.
If you like your (gender, class and other) politics with a strong dose of humor and color, you’ll love this exhibition.