An Introduction to Grayson Perry and His Books
In 2002, the Grayson Perry exhibition “Guerilla Tactics” travelled from Amsterdam to London. This exhibition was a slice of Perry’s persona and his portfolio. It featured a selection of 45 ceramic vases, as well as some drawings, photos, embroidery, four quilts and two films.
It was his use of ceramics in particular that astonished, and that would win Perry the Turner Prize the following year. They combine delicate pottery and dramatic, personal painting in an extraordinary mix, piecing together autobiographical scenes, often quite cruel or disturbing, reflecting the past of the artist and his alter-ego Claire. (He received his Turner Prize in full Claire regalia.)
Each of the vases was very attractive, some with incredible palettes of colours, some resplendent in golds and silvers. The devil was in the details, though. In some cases the elegant medium might tell their stories through finely detailed figures; in others, through weird bendy comic-like characters with bizarre speech bubbles. The works’ titles betrayed the intensity of the scenes depicted, titles like “We’ve Found the Body of Your Child,” “Whoring”, and “Nostalgia for the Bad Times.”
Not that I will pretend to know a lot about it, but apparently these vases were made by a traditional technique called coiling. Perry then textured the surfaces using various techniques—glazing, photo-transfer, incision, embossing—on top of markings made directly into the clay. It is a slow, methodical process.
A versatile artist, Perry has also shown what the Turner Prize panel called “his uncompromising engagement with personal and social concerns” through his work not only in ceramics, but in various media, notably his quilts. He has also authored a graphic novel, designed a conceptual holiday home (which he calls an homage to “single mums in Dagenham, hairdressers in Colchester, and the landscape and history of Essex”), made a documentary TV series, and—of course—written a few books. And that’s why we’re here.
In Grayson Perry: Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Girl (2006), Wendy Jones, adopts Perry’s voice, based on numerous interviews and discussions. The book delves right into early childhood, a period of time so important for Perry and his work: his first sexual experience at age 7, his broken home, using his imagination as an escape, and his experimental transvestite leanings in his teen years. It continues on course to the present day, out in the big bad world. If you want to know Perry and understand why he does what he does, this is where to begin.
Once you’ve read all about Perry’s background, there’s his art to explore. For the uninitiated there’s the big, beautiful Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! (2017). Released in tandem with its namesake exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Perry is exploring new themes and worries of the national and international conscience. There’s a lot of anxiety and Brexit stuff here; a lot of topical excitement and rage. Alongside large-format sketches and paintings, this book also includes the famous Remain and Leave vases and the Princess Freedom ladies’ bicycle.
For the diehard fans and art students, there’s a collection of Perry’s sketches, Sketchbooks (2016). They’re a little too cluttered and chaotic for my liking, but I must admit, they are incredibly detailed and will be useful to many.
We must not forget the books that show off Grayson Perry the writer. Playing to the Gallery (2015) was a little slip of a book, but in an almost-familiar voice it took the reader step by step through how art is made, how it can be appreciated, how it’s sold and really how the entire art world works. The pages are charged with wit and energy and it’s so well written it’s immediately accessible by anyone.
Perry’s The Descent of Man (2016) was another clever and clinically written foray, this time into the nature of masculinity, and away from the art world. Man in the modern age is dissected and put under the microscope; from birth, how boys should respond to specific toys and the colour blue rather than pink, for instance; right up to the status of the grown man in modern society; the power struggles, the emotional struggles and the complexities of physical appearance. Perry’s voice is invaluable and to be honest, who better to discuss these issues?