I love Grayson Perry. I confess it’s been a slow-burn kind of love; as a final year Art Historian tired of the Renaissance my head was turned by Grayson’s peers; Young British Artist bad boys Jake and Dinos Chapman. They may have been shortlisted for a Turner prize but Perry had beaten them to it, which meant he was just too mainstream for my tastes at the time. The irony is not lost on me.
However my natural inclination towards a well-crafted, interesting and visually appealing work of art soon reared its head. And with his engaging combination of wit, insight, character, historical references and sheer force of personality, my love of Perry was inevitable.
Whatever material it is made of, Perry’s work stands out in any room that it is displayed in, and its creator is recognisable on sight. That’s why it was impossible to miss the large ceramic vase ‘Jane Austen in E17’ as I made a dash through Manchester Art Gallery. With its intricate engravings, overprinting, jewel-like colours and sheer size, it is an incredible object.
The ornate drawings on the surface of the vase, of bonneted ladies from Jane Austen novels, are like book illustrations, and are simple but disarmingly engaging. The joy of a three-dimensional object means that the images can be viewed in a continuous loop as you circle the vase, admiring the quality of Perry’s work from every angle.
In the gallery notes next to the vase, Perry explains that it is about linking past and present, showing quintessential examples of the prim Georgian middle classes alongside images from gossip magazines and photos from the trendy East London. However, he admits that actually this sort of analysis of the piece is “post-rationalisation of my own work. Embarrassing as it is for an artist to admit nowadays, I was really striving for beauty”.
This desire to create what is quite simply a beautiful object without shrouding it in obscure intellectual justifications is one of the best things about Perry. Even in his earlier works which dealt with issues such as abuse, child sexuality and pornography, with a penchant for inserting penis symbols onto any available space, the draft of Perry’s work was undeniable. Embracing a variety of mediums, whether painted miniatures, pottery, tapestry, screen-printing, his own transvestitism, everything at it’s very core is aesthetically pleasing.
I’m a great advocate of the view that being high-brow, pretentious, over-educated or well-read has nothing to do with the appreciation of art. A gut instinct is as powerful as any footnoted thesis. I’m aware that this line of argument is making my three years holed up in a library seem even more pointless than many would believe it to be already. I did learn so much, and one was the belief that art should be for all.
By “striving for beauty”, Perry’s work taps into a person’s most basic, magpie-like, attraction towards something pretty. There’s a child in all of us that, when we see something we like, has the impulse to reach out and say “I want it”. So many artists (like the aforementioned enfants terrible of the 90s, the YBAs) veer off in the opposite direction, creating art to shock. This shock factor often isn’t as a tool to drive home some profound point; rather it’s an attempt to stick the middle-finger up to the establishment by causing a ruckus in an art gallery. Viewing a piece by a contemporary artist which causes pleasure rather than discomfort is a refreshing change.
‘Jane Austen in E17’ is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Perry’s oeuvre and a tiny insight into what he is capable of an artist. But it is a beautiful insight nonetheless, as successful as the artist could have hoped, and Manchester is lucky to have it.