Sex And Ceramics: A Book Review

Image of Grayson Perry, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, as Claire

Image of Grayson Perry, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, as Claire

Wendy Jones’s biography, Grayson Perry: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Girl, explores Perry’s life, interests and artistic developments. Perry, born in 1960 and raised in Chelmsford, is an award-winning artist famous for specialising in ceramics and pottery. He makes furtive comments on societal injustices and hypocrisies via his work. His works oftentimes include disturbing or uncomfortable images which are incongruent with the attractive ceramic they feature upon. He is well-known for his cross-dressing and particularly his alter-ego Claire.

After reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, I had a perfunctory (of course…) google search sweep of fetishism. Jesse Bering in Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us expresses the noble yet not-so-Disney desire that every knismolagniac (a masochist wanting to be tickled to death) find their titillagniac (a sadist intent on tickling). In the intriguing tome here reviewed, Wendy Jones recounts Grayson Perry’s journey in finding both his sexual and artistic niche: the snug titillagniac compliment to his personal spread of experiences, desires and philosophies. It is a compelling account of the progression and development of the artist; both vagaries of circumstance and individual preference steer Perry towards the birth of Claire, his transgendered alter-ego, and towards the advent kilning of his first plate, entitled “Kinky Sex”.

There is a hint of self-congratulation regarding Perry’s salacious exploits which can at times be cloying; art student Perry was sharp, womanising, flamboyant, angry and proudly alternative (post-punk). He describes his childhood in emotional terms. His mother left his father for the milkman, which both strained and curdled relationships into a pale milky shadow of their former glory (I deserve a kick?). However, once he leaves behind the problematic childhood, there is hardly a tinge of a mention of a hint of an emotion to be found in the writing. He revels in the exciting new world of sex, drugs, squats, irony and art. He lewdly describes an affair with a lecturer: “I started interacting with the local wildlife. I was naïve. I had let down my solar panels and I was fucking around; I was taking soil samples from Planet Earth.”

In childhood, he relied heavily on imagination to pull him away from turbulent home life, but from adulthood onwards he found different hedonistic and artistic escapes. Perry is quite the exhibitionist, he recounts a party in which he pranced around naked covered in gold glitter telling people what he thought of them with vitriol, and swinging from bannisters exclaiming, “You’re all wankers! You’re all wankers!” It would have been satisfying to see him on the return home, tail between legs, hiding between doorways with flicks of gold glitter falling from his naked arse. But Perry writes with humour and self-awareness, which makes Perry (via Jones) a likeable and honest narrator. Perry admits he has something of a penchant for humiliation anyway, a desire which he finds outlet for in his dressing as a young girl.

Recipe for Humanity (tapestry) 2005 – Grayson Perry

One element to the value of this biography is the way Perry is able to relate experiences to his artwork in such an accessible and frank manner. He describes his initial predisposition to copy the style of his tutors in order to impress them (a widespread affliction in art foundation), along with the influences of various exhibitions he sees. As he matures, he finds his own style developing. In the same way, his sexuality seems to develop like an art piece in tandem, of which he describes the influences and progression. His cross-dressing is incorporated in his work, for instance the piece Transvestite Jet Pilots, and the invention of alter-ego Claire. His sexuality massively influences his art; there are many testosterone filled nudes and boners on motorbikes, predominantly in earlier work, to which he imagines the sighs of art teachers. He describes his journey as a transvestite from initially encountering the word, to taking furtive train journeys in order to attend transvestite societies. Furthermore, Perry’s student exploits, the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s cultural backdrop and his own take on things contribute to making it an interesting read for anyone regardless of interest in artistic development.

The images in the book focus more upon Perry’s earlier artistic creations which tend to portray the already mentioned earlier fixation: sex and sexuality. It is interesting to regard Perry’s later works online. Perry is a perennial conveyor of sharp contrasts; he juxtaposes lurid imagery on the wholesome traditional medium of pottery; he places horror alongside fairytale romanticism or savage societal commentaries next to the idyllic or sugary kitsch. These days there is a lot of societal commentary and autobiographical subject matter to his work.

Primarily however, I enjoy the exploration of the collage and process in creating a person. We make up stories to explain ourselves, have stories made about us, and in such a mishmash way form ourselves. Not often can one read such a developed psychological depiction of a person’s self-actualisation. Perry idolises Henry Darger, a true “outsider” art brut artist, one who was hermit-esque and uninfluenced by mainstream art. But it is also equally fascinating to consider how people combine and recombine elements of others and of others’ ideas to form themselves, in addition to the internal influences of their own imaginations. It could just as well be Portrait of the Artist as an Art. Except that would be a bit of a hodgepodge and would lose those crafty cross-dressing allusions. It is less about finding the shoe that fits or that perfect titillagniac than you would think; Perry admits, “I didn’t really think pottery was my metier.”

Side note: perhaps you can even get away with squashing in bizarre references to fetishes as an ill-formed metaphor, in your inaugural article… just because you can!