Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry creates vases, tapestries, paintings, and etchings that explore a variety of historical and contemporary themes. His work comments on societal injustices and modern life through the lens of his own personal experience, but using the techniques of traditional, classical art.
Born in Chelmsford, Perry’s childhood was split between his two divorced parents. By the age of 13, he had acknowledged his transvestism to himself, but by 15, it had caused a rift between him and his father. It was these difficult times that propelled Perry towards becoming the keenly witted and sharply analytical artist that we know today.
In 1982, Perry graduated from Portsmouth Polytechnic. At the time, he aspired to be a filmmaker, but was struggling to accept that he would have to compromise on his own vision to work with other creatives. He appeared in performance pieces and art films as part of a Neo-Naturist group, but later moved on to ceramics.
Cherishing craft as an individual and social good, Perry digs deep into English styles as well as global and ancient traditions to create beautifully detailed ceramic vases that challenge the idea that pottery must be either decorative or utilitarian. The pottery itself is created in a very traditional way. The beauty and craftsmanship cleverly disguises the more subversive subject matter of the decoration. On the ceramic surface, Perry uses non-traditional methods, including embossing and photographic transfers, to add his narrative designs. His ideas come from his concerns surrounding modern life (including sex, war, and abuse), his powerful formative experiences, and the adventures of his alter-ego Claire and Alan Measles, his childhood teddy bear who accompanied him on a motorbike pilgrimage around Europe.
His most famous vase is the Rosetta Vase (2011), which was displayed at the exhibition he curated, The Tomb of The Unknown Craftsman, at the British Museum. The exhibition returned to the British Museum in 2020. Much of this exhibition was dedicated to Alan Measles.
Perry exhibited his first piece of pottery at the New Contemporaries Show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1980, but did not have his own solo show until four years later. The works exhibited were all produced in the evening classes he attended. I Want to Be an Artist was the first of Perry’s vases to sell at auction, in 1996.
The 2002 Guerilla Tactics Show, held at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, saw Perry fully emerge as the controversial artist and public figure that has impressed society ever since. The name of the show came from Perry’s belief that the traditional beauty of his vases is a ‘guerilla tactic’ to conceal the ‘polemic’ or ‘ideology’ waiting to be discovered in their stories. Perry demonstrated a deft ability to put together incongruous subjects to create thought-provoking art and make valuable comments on society.
Shortly after, in 2003, Perry won the Turner Prize. His victory inspired a great amount of discussion. Not only was Perry the first potter to win, he attended the event as Claire, with his wife and daughter. The prize was an acknowledgement of Perry’s great talent, but also his ability to disrupt the surface of mainstream art.
In 2004, Perry held a hugely successful exhibition at the Tate St. Ives. Delving deeper into his world of contentious art, he tackled subjects such as domestic violence, paedophilia, child abuse, and damaging cultural stereotypes.
After this, Perry’s exhibitions became more regular and even more critically acclaimed. In the years that followed, Perry exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (2006), the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan (2007), the MUDAM in Luxembourg (2008).
2019 saw a collection of so-called Brexit vases exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, proving that his work continues to be relevant and insightful.
As well as ceramics, Perry has worked in printmaking, drawing, embroidery and other textile work, film, and performance. He has released two autobiographies: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl (2006) and The Descent of Man (2016).
In the 1990s, Perry produced some of his most notable embroidery work. His dress, Mother of All Battles, was created in 1996 but later exhibited at his 2002 Guerilla Tactics show. The image released showed Claire holding a gun, wearing the Eastern European style dress, surrounded by images of war. At the end of the century, Perry released Claire’s Coming Out Dress (2000), a pink and white dress decorated with images of male animals wielding spiked clubs. The Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), a monumental 49ft piece, was inspired by the Sumatran batiks in its style, but is rich in witty, damning, and critical details about consumer culture. It is widely recognised to be a comment on contemporary human life; but, when combined with its ancient style, the piece creates a fuller, more evolutionary take on humanity’s development.
In 1992, Perry released his graphic novel Cycle of Violence (1992), asserting his place once more as one of Britain’s most diverse talents. Later, he penned Playing to the Gallery (2014), a book in which Perry opens up the sometimes seemingly-inaccessible art world to those on the outside of it. In 2016, Perry combined his penmanship and craftsmanship in Sketchbooks.
The unsettling subjects of Perry’s work means it lends itself to charitable causes. In 2007, Perry curated an exhibition entitled Insider Art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Supported by the Koestler Trust, all the exhibited art was produced by prisoners and ex-offenders. It aimed to promote rehabilitation in prisons and psychiatric units and draw attention to the benefits of including art as part of this process.
IN THE PUBLIC EYE
Grayson Perry may be known best by some as a unique and captivating public figure. His original point of view and unashamed individuality has led him to take a respected place in the mainstream media’s exploration of the 21st century world, be it through his art or his transvestism. In 2005, Perry appeared on Channel 4 with a documentary entitled Why Men Wear Frocks. Perry also delivered the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures in 2013, with exceptional reviews. Examining the crisis of contemporary art, these lectures affirmed Perry’s position as one of the UK’s leading artists and cultural critics. In the same year, he was awarded his CBE to mark his great contribution to British art. Perry became Chancellor of the University of the Arts London in 2015.