Hand-crafted irony: Grayson Perry's polite pots are smooth, charming and, on closer examination, downright offensive. Robin Dutt admires his cheek
Friday 07 October 1994
Subversive ceramicist Grayson Perry knows no other way than polite outrage. Having been on the art scene for more than a decade and encouraged by, among others, art dealers James Birch and David Gill, he now achieves the curious but not dubious accolade of showing at the chic Anthony d'Offay Gallery this month.
For many art observers Perry is a strange choice for d'Offay, who usually sets the art trend - Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, Jeff Koons, Bill Viola and company. His work is hardly sleek. Tumbledown vases and urns - more William and Mary haphazard than 1990s perfect, sit stoically on plinths and shelves, reminders of past times. And yet, in d'Offay's case, this decision to show Perry may be a throwback in itself to his early days when he showed more classic art such as work from the Omega Group.
Grayson Perry began making his laboriously hand-built pots more than 10 years ago but can trace his interest to a specific incident in his childhood. 'One afternoon when I was eight or nine years old, I was given my first pottery lesson at Woodham Ferrers C of E School, Essex,' he says. 'To protect our clothes we were made to wear long-sleeved smocks made of light blue rubber. I can vividly recall mine being too small as the pottery teacher did up the snap fasteners down the back. I became very excited at the feeling of the tight smooth material. In this state I made my first ever pot, an ashtray for my dear mother.'
And the excitement has not diminished. He has the mischief of a pixie. When he laughs, he sounds a bit like a little creature from Tolkien's Middle Earth. He used to be even naughtier and indeed arrogant but 10 years and one child later, Perry, who lives with his wife in Georgian semi-splendour in Islington, has toned down - a little. He still pursues his favourite subjects, though - sex, death, power, money and above all, it seems, class. Here is a man who is certainly classist and hates the upper and lower echelons with equal vigour. As for those comfortably in the middle, they are beneath contempt.
He chooses pottery as a medium for his work because it is essentially so inoffensive and acceptable. None of us balk at an urn, a vase, a dish or a platter. They all seem at home - at home. But where Perry scores is by lulling us into a false sense of security using familiarity and then delivers the coup de grace. Polite and acceptable the shapes may be, but on closer inspection they are etched and scratched with countless obscenities, riddles, poems, one-liners, conundrums and superb Cocteauesque drawings. Colourful transfers are sometimes applied in the form of little floral cut-outs, adding a manic, Victorian scrapbook feel.
All this madness and mayhem goes on within the strict confines and outlines of a very polite pot, and this is half the reason for his success. His sense of irony is keen, his observation sharp to the point of cruelty. But irony and sarcasm can wear thin. The style cognoscenti will always love him but will d'Offay's better-heeled crowd warm to his schoolboy mischief? After all, the titles of the pots, often barbed and spiked, are specifically aimed at the audience who just might be able to afford them.
'Pot for Wealthy Westerner with Good Taste', 'A Better Class of Souvenir' and 'Pot for a Broken Home' are examples. However Perry's laissez-faire attitude is compelling. And it is to his credit that he has attempted to challenge the nature of what is an art or craft object, in an arena much-bloodied by the pointless battle between both. Perry's pots are unashamedly hand-crafted fine art pieces - the best of both worlds.
Grayson Perry's ceramics are on view at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London W1 (071-499 4100) from 20 Oct
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