The Names of Flowers (1994)
Saint, Satin, Satan (1999)
Childhood Trauma Manifesting Itself in Later Life (1992)
Mad Kid’s Bedroom Wall (1996)
We’ve Found the Body of Your Child (2000)
Driven Man (2000)
Sunset through Net Curtains
Like Kitaj, Grayson Perry belongs to that trend of English picturing that tells stories, that contains a narrative weave. He uses the word as a way to reveal social and personal truths; the word brutally strips down reality, revealing a world of violent and insecure human beings. In another common trend, Grayson Perry’s narratives involve a slow and changing reading. Their often-bright colors and gleaming glaze have the power to deceive. Sunset through Net Curtains has the very palette of a lovely sunset in all its rosy and yellow shades. One is drawn to the swelling flowers and the organic forms. However, as one looks closer, one begins to decode a plethora of disturbing references: the book that an old man reads is entitled ‘slave owner’; the words that a man types on the computer include ‘torture me to death.’ Though Perry’s figures can sometimes speak for themselves simply in their tortured demeanor, at other times, words are transformative in their labels.
Perry’s work is likewise deceiving in its choice of form; like Emin’s quilts, there is an explicit irony in his choice of pottery for disturbing subject matter. Pottery is generally viewed as something modest, delicate and “innocent” (Wilson, 75). Perry’s work partially arises from a desire to challenge the art establishment’s influence in such associations, and its essential “control” of artistic “sign systems” (Chandler). As Boot explains, “a strict distinction is drawn in England between ceramics – as one of the crafts – and the fine arts. The two fields are treated… very differently there, and the distinction is deeply rooted in English art education and the world of the galleries and museums” (71). Perry perceives such distinctions as pretentious, and mocks them. He manifests these views when he ironically writes on his pot, Peasant Ware (1990): ‘Seek not great wisdom for this is but simple peasant ware, there is no great art here.’ He likewise amusingly and satirically places “stamps on his pots in accordance with the artistic rules [that look] like the stamp of some old porcelain factory” but that really spell out ‘wanker.’” (Boot, 72). Indeed, Perry approaches the art establishment as another “accepted [hierarchy] [that he must call] into question” (Wilson, 85, 86).
This distinctly British, ironic, tongue-in-cheek character extends itself when Perry appropriates comical devices and pop culture imagery to make violent, accusatory commentary. He encourages a semiotic reading, for the viewer is forced to engender new associations among rather disparate elements. Driven Man (2000), as several other pots, gives voice to the female, showing how her image is put on display and is abused of. The woman appears to be trapped within the popular imagery (such as the large billboards of women) and the men and their cars that surround them. Thus what at first may appear as playful, colorful imagery of pop culture, cars and attractive lettering of magazines and newspapers is entirely transformed. The same clash in aesthetics is seen in We’ve Found the Body of Your Child (2000), which is scattered with bubbles of words – such as ‘you fucking little shit’ and ‘all men are bastards’ – which resemble comic book speech bubbles done in child-like handwriting. Here, the infantile aesthetics of the lettering adds another layer of meaning as it suggests a corruption of innocence. Interestingly, “his manner of drawing…has been described by Perry as that of an adolescent sixth former: both direct and illustrational” (Wilson, 85). We see again that old British desire to communicate “directly,” which is in turn accomplished through a bold outpour of words, illustrations and a carefully meditated style.
Importantly, Perry, as evidenced, draws on the signage of popular culture and familiar contexts, like other artists have, as subjects for his critique. His pots have a social conscience as they address male dominance, war, class distinctions, murder cases and the corruption in social values. Boot rightly articulates, “Perry holds up a mirror to his contemporaries as Hogarth had done to those of his time” (74).
Much of Perry’s work, however, employs the personal and confessional language characteristic of British art today. Mad Kid’s Bedroom Wall (1996), for example, has phrases written in the first person, which appear to refer to Perry’s own life: “I was a mad kid and now I ain’t. I got out ’coz I could paint.” Relevantly, however, much of his work previously discussed, which addressed wider social concerns, are clearly affected by Perry’s personal topics of childhood trauma and transvestitism. Thus, in a way, Perry, as Emin, Kitaj and Hockney, transforms personal experience into a greater monument, as something applied to society at large.