The Holburne Museum in Bath is known for its historic collection of fine and decorative art, including oil paintings by Gainsborough, Sargent and Vanbrugh, and an exemplary display of 16th-century maiolica. This January, the museum will exhibit works of an entirely different kind: the wonky, subversive ceramics of a young Grayson Perry. Celebrated for his politically charged practice which explores identity, gender, social class and taste, the 2003 Turner Prize winner and self-described transvestite potter speaks to audiences well beyond the usual art crowd. Despite his widespread appeal, Perry’s early work, created between 1982 and 1994, is yet to be explored in an exhibition. Following a significant crowd-sourcing effort, the show’s curator, Catrin Jones, and the Holburne Museum’s director, Chris Stephens, gathered 70 or so pieces – including ceramics, films and sketchbooks – that elucidate these formative years.
The show’s inspired title was Perry’s idea, but more than a jazzy nomenclature it captures a tangible shift in the artist’s practice. Speaking to Modern Painters, Chris Stephens commented: “when you look at Grayson’s early pots, a lot of them are dealing with his own exploration of who he was – his motivations and drivers. There’s a lot about transvestitism and the early forms of Claire, his female alter-ego, who in those days he was modelling on news readers, Princess Di and Margaret Thatcher. It was only after therapy that Claire became a sort of Little Bo Peep – the kind of theatrical character that she is now. There’s a lot of anger and there’s the seeds of what his work is about now. There’s a certain amount of self-deprecating humour, having a poke at the art world, collecting and the commodification of art, which is a big theme for him now. But a lot of it is quite challenging. Exploring fetishism and domination and the opposite. There are images of degraded men and domineering women – and cross dressing and castration feature a bit!”
Some of these early works have a deliberate made-to-shock feel, and Freud would certainly have had a field day sifting through the sheer quantity of penises that adorn Perry’s pots and plates. Perhaps more surprising for a contemporary viewer are the Nazi motifs, which, as Stephens points out, had a particular place in the punkish counter-cultures of the time – in a Sid Vicious, “two fingers up at the establishment” kind of way. In fact, Stephens reflects, one of the strengths of the show is the insight it offers into that period of British history: “We’re probably about to start a whole period of looking back to the 1980s in the way that we used to look at the ’60s in the ’80s as a historical period. One of the interesting things about Grayson’s work is it opens up a subtle niche in that cultural history. We probably have a dominant idea of the 1980s as very black and white, with miner strikes, Gordon Gekko, and the beginning of that great period of ‘greed is good.’ Actually, there were all sorts of other things going on, like the things he’s doing – something that is quite anti-establishment but not overtly political – a challenge to establishment values.”
Among the works exhibited is “Sales Pitch” (1987), a ceramic plate inscribed with text beseeching the buyer to purchase it: “Come on… It suits you, complements your cheque book… It’s classic Grayson Perry.” In characteristically Perry fashion, the work offers a critique of capitalism and the art market, all the while placing the artist firmly within its grips (a gesture which has been expertly replicated in the Holburne’s giftshop, where visitors can buy a reproduction of the plate). Other works focus on identity, such as “Transvestite Jet Pilots” (circa 1980-81), where traditional emblems of masculinity and femininity are confused. The installation resembles a cockpit, only the plane’s window has morphed into the mirror of a woman’s dressing table, now adorned with ceramic pots, combs and trinkets. The carved symbols representing the dials of a pilot’s dashboard look more like indecipherable hieroglyphs, thus foregrounding the complex systems of codes that construct a gender. In the book that accompanies the show, Andrew Wilson, a curator at the Tate, describes how this early installation paves the way for an ongoing theme in the artist’s work: “the domestic as a site for celebration, subversion and satire.”
This theme is, of course, built into Perry’s medium: pottery, which has both suffered from and rejoiced in its own domestic connotations. Few artists have drawn so much attention to the arts/craft divide as Perry has, and even if his own practice has not necessarily led to a widespread dismantling of traditional hierarchies (he remains one of the few artists working in ceramics to have reached such global stardom), he has nonetheless highlighted the possibilities of the medium to an international audience. One of the aspects that the Holburne’s exhibition foregrounds is how Perry’s work relates to the history of ceramics – both informed by and radically divergent from tradition – with its subject matter often subverting the quaint or decorative connotations that something like an earthenware vase can carry.
Exhibiting one’s early works is rarely a comfortable task for any artist, let alone one who seems to have spent his younger years channelling the depths of his subconscious into his art, with no stone left unturned. How does Perry reflect on this period of his practice? In the book accompanying the show, the artist holds no punches, writing “I made crude vessels covered in crude drawings of crude acts,” before adding, “I also wince a bit at how angry and bitter I was.” But alongside these criticisms, he also describes these early years as the building blocks for the rest of his work: “In a way, in that moment, I had laid out the ingredients for my entire career: tradition, subversion, decoration.”
In this regard, the show is a courageous one – a lesser artist would have swept aside the uncomfortable or less technically accomplished aspects of their earlier practice. From an audience’s perspective, it is a delight to see such a preeminent artist in his formative stages. As Stephens suggests: “Particularly in the very early works, there’s a kind of physical crudity which gives them a very different attraction to the more recent works, which are quite refined and polished and feel comfortable in a grand setting. These are kind of funky and crafty and some of them have gone wrong, but he’s embraced the mistakes. There’s one called ‘Self Portrait Cracked and Warped’ (1985), which comes from him doing something wrong with the plate.” He adds, “When everything is very finely finished and polished and perfect, then in some respect there’s an additional barrier to accessing it. There’s something nice about the contingency of something kind of imperfect.”
One of the strengths of the exhibition is the reflection it offers on art, not as the final, completed product, but as process. What comes across strongly in Perry’s early work is a conception of artistic creation as freedom of expression, a process of working through ideas without fear of judgement, honing skills by trial and error, and, above all, taking some pleasure along the way. Such ideas may not be revolutionary, but they are certainly to be celebrated – and the Holburne’s exhibition does just that.
“Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years” is on show at the Holburne Museum in Bath through May 25, then travels to York Art Gallery (June 12-September 20)and the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich (October 2020-February 2021). The accompanying book is edited by Catrin Jones and Chris Stephens, and published by Thames & Hudson.
Article published in Modern Painters magazine.