Provincial Punk, Turner Contemporary, Margate
Local news doesn’t often cover contemporary art. But an exception was made for Grayson Perry, who cropped up on ITV Meridian last week, to mark the opening of his new retrospective at the Turner Contemporary.
Grayson – and it says something about both the man and the artist that referring to him by his first name feels the most natural option – first came to public attention as That Bloke In A Dress, when he won the Turner Prize in 2003. Winning the Turner Prize does not necessarily endear an artist to the Great British Public, but we seem to have taken Grayson to our hearts. He’s a National Treasure. Not bad for a transvestite potter who has a childhood teddy bear called Alan Measles as a familiar/alter ego. (Grayson’s Twitter handle is @Alan_Measles – do follow him if you don’t already)
In the interview he gave to ITV Meridian, Grayson happily recounted a tale of a man visiting one of his exhibitions, who looked around him and said, “At last, something I can like…” And that’s one of the things about our adoption of Grayson Perry – we don’t just like him because he’s a funny man in a dress – we love his art too. As proof of this, the Turner in Margate was packed this weekend– not just with the usual gallery-going suspects but with a whole range of people, including several bikers who had wandered in from the ‘Margate Meltdown’ happening outside. The question is, why do we seem to have taken him so much to our hearts? Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but as a fully paid up member of the Army of Alan Measles, here’s what I think.
First of all, his work is beautiful. Whether it’s his ceramics or his tapestries – the two media he’s best known for – or his drawings and videos, his work is always aesthetically pleasing. It might seem like an obvious thing that a work of art should be pleasant to look at, but at least some contemporary art is alienatingly ugly. Grayson has no truck with this – to the extent that one of the ceramics on display here is emblazoned with the words ‘I Love Beauty’.
The second thing about his work is that it is so definitely British. No other country could have produced Grayson. There are pictures of Barratt’s style homes on his ceramics, and references to British brands in the tapestry. Even the sex (and there is sex – and a parental guidance warning outside the exhibition entrance) is not European grande amour but very British, with hints of the Carry On films. Equally, his transvestitism fits into his Britishness – think about how much we love a Pantomine Dame. (or perhaps, having just started working at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, I have panto on the brain.)
One of the other joys of Grayson’s work – and another uniquely British one – is its humour. Yet you never feel he’s laughing at you – you’re always in on the joke.
And last – but definitely not least – I love the craft aspect of his work, the way he’s taken pottery and tapestry making, and developed these traditional crafts into high art. Contemporary art can sometimes feel to divorced from the old reality of an artist physically creating something with his (or her) hands – if you want an antidote to this, watch the video of Grayson laboriously creating one of his signature pots. His draughtsmanship, showcased here in his imaginary maps, is amazing, yet it’s the thing he’s least known for.
Perry already has a CBE. I say, give that man a Knighthood. Or a Damehood, if he’d prefer.
Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk runs until 13th September