At first glance, the colorful, classically shaped vase adorned with flower prints and pictures of doll-like young girls seems harmless enough. It’s the second look that throws you.
A step toward the enormous vessel reveals a much less wholesome scene of young children wielding weapons, smoking drugs and dismembering their stuffed toys. A billboard in the background bears the perplexing sign, “Fxxk Our Car” while a Madonna-and-child decal decorates the foreground.
Such is the unsettling world of British artist Grayson Perry as depicted in the piece, “Plight of the Sensitive Child,” on display now at the 21st Century Kanazawa Museum as part of “My Civilization,” his debut in Japan.
The disparity between Perry’s ornate decorative style and dark subject matter is not a coincidence, but a strategy the artist calls “guerrilla tactics” — an artful method of luring an unwitting audience into his troubling realm. Perry refers to his own work as “poison treasure,” an apt description of jewel-like pots that entice with their bright colors and elaborate surfaces, only to quickly betray expectations with their images.
Violence, death, prejudice, religion, abuse, materialism and deviant sexuality are only some of the anxiety-provoking motifs that appear in variations throughout his work. Controversial themes to be sure, but Perry is no stranger to controversy. In his book, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl,” he describes the childhood experiences that shaped his sexuality early on and gives insights into the disquieting subject matter of his work. An unabashed transvestite, he is equally well known as his young female alter-ego, Claire, who takes on the bulk of his public appearances. In 2003 when the artist claimed England’s coveted Turner Prize, he accepted the award as Claire, who, in a purple party frock, proclaimed: “It’s about time a transvestite potter won [this award].”
In the world of fine art, the fact that Perry’s illicit messages find their voice on ceramic pots is equally as contentious as the themes themselves. Commonly treated as sculpture’s ugly step-sister, ceramic art is often shunned in favor of what is considered more refined media. Even though the scope of Perry’s oeuvre includes video, photography, embroidery and cast iron, he is best known for his ceramic work, which manifests the bulk of his expression. Perry has no formal education in clay and started doing pottery at night classes on a whim while studying art at Braintree College and the University of Portsmouth.
So why would a contemporary artist engaging such complicated contemporary themes turn to the unlikely canvas of vessels?
“The fact that they are pots is kind of invisible to me,” Perry explained in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “I don’t make unusually shaped pots. I think that’s for all the potters to do. I’m not interested in innovation, I’m interested in using the cultural baggage of what a pot is as a kind of background for the imagery that I use . . . which of course puts a spin on whatever I put on it. It’s a good tease for the contemporary art world.”
While Perry enjoys taking shots at the world of contemporary art, that doesn’t mean he necessarily identifies with his ceramics peers. Though many British potters got their start following in the footsteps of Bernard Leach, who spent several years in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, Perry was never a believer in the Mingei (folk-art) movement he espoused.
“When I started, my image of pottery was sandals, wind chimes, all that kind of pseudo-Zen stuff that had come over with Bernard Leach — and I consciously reacted against that. One of the first pieces I ever made cracked in the kiln and the teacher said, ‘Oh no, it’s cracked,’ and I said, ‘At least it’s a real crack. It’s not one of your pseudo-styled Edo tea-bowl cracks that you have given a name to. It’s a proper mistake. It’s not a gift of the fire. It’s more of a kick in the balls of the fire.’ ”
Though Perry thinks of himself as “an artist who uses ceramics,” and doesn’t want to be labeled as a potter or ceramic artist, he understands the stigma of pottery and is determined to use it to his advantage. “I’m a tranny potter, I’ll live with it,” he says. “It’s better than no label at all. It’s something to work with and against. If I do a show with no pots in it, it’s like ‘Tranny potter makes show with no pots in it.’ It’s not a hindrance. A lot of potters said to me after I won [the Turner Prize], ‘Does this mean that ceramic art will be really accepted by the art world?’ And I said, ‘Just the opposite, it’s my gimmick now!’ ”
Whether the subject of his ridicule is contemporary artists, potters or the public in general, Perry pokes fun at just about everyone through the 70-odd works in “My Civilization.” In a series of large handmade platters, the artist embeds both obscured and not-so-subtle messages.
One plate, which is a made in the same style as the Kutani-ware indigenous to Kanazawa, bears the Japanese text, “Welcome to Those Who Hate Contemporary Art.” Right next to it a platter titled “Arabic Stealth Bomber” employs a color scheme and design style typical of ancient Islamic ceramics to depict a more modern motif. “A Sense of Community” simply arranges images of schools and churches into a neat swastika.
Then there’s the enormous and ornate vessel, “What’s Not to Like,” a veritable shrine to modern-day commercialism with its vibrant array of iPods, cell phones, Louis Vuitton bags and Nike swooshes. Crowned by a bear holding a shopping bag in one hand, a beer bottle in the other and with one foot on a soccer ball, through this piece Perry challenges viewers to ask themselves if there is anything objectionable about today’s consumer indulgences.
Even more provocative is a vase decorated with entirely motifs of paper currency boldly displaying its own price tag: £35,000. Perry even went through the trouble of converting into yen for the local audience (7,863,450 yen). Instead of the legal-tender declaration on a typical bank note, Perry’s eponymous pot reads, “I Promise Nothing.”
Perhaps these jibes are easy to forgive because the artist is simultaneously satirical about himself. Although he makes fun of the contemporary art world, Perry himself, or at least alter-ego Claire, is a fixture at art openings and parties in England. And his inconsistencies only multiply — just when you want to label him as a pervert, he shows up to dinner with his loving wife and daughter. Yet, the contradictions in Perry’s work, and persona, are not distracting. Instead, these ironies are the hallmark of his palette.
So what’s next? “World Domination,” quips Perry. “We’re plotting for our next move.”
While world domination may still be a few years off, Perry has taken Kanazawa by storm and in the two weeks since its opening “My Civilization” has proven to be immensely popular. Besides, at £35,000 a pot, he is certainly an artist on the rise.
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