Sex, drugs and earthenware

Sex, drugs and earthenware

Full disclosure, I stole the title of this post from a pot. A pot on which these words sat nestled between a Pepsi can and some rather fine blue-ink line drawings. A Grayson Perry pot.

Wikipedia, to approach the unconventional conventionally, cites Grayson Perry as “an English artist, known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross-dressing.”

Which is as fantastic an epitaph as any of us are ever going to get.

I first stumbled (not literally, but with equivalent surprise) across Perry’s work during a curatorial session at the British Museum that Sotheby’s Institute had organised for its semester study class (of which I was lucky enough to be one).

Picture it. Sheet on sheet of beautifully precise lithographs strew themselves across the traverse of the table; detailed cross-sections of plants follow anatomically perfect rabbits in recorded progression of human achievement almost ecclesiastical in purity.  And then, this sheet; darker than most, larger than all - Perry’s ‘Map of an Englishman’.

I fell in love. Then and there. ‘Map of an Englishman’ was Perry’s first foray into etching and is still to my mind, one of his best. Over four sheets, he details and exposes the insecurities and curiosities that, while common to us all, are peculiarly particular to the British. 

I was reminded of this looking at another print of that same map in Perry’s Sydney retrospective, ‘My Pretty Little Art Career,’ the other weekend. I stood to the side, pondering, watching. People would approach, usually in pairs. They’d stare, point, nudge each other, giggle and point some more. It’s no wonder. Modelled in feel on a 17th map, the topography of this guide places Sex one neighbourhood over from Fear and depicts Delayed Gratification as a little town  neatly located between Compassion and Happiness. Of course, the fact that the G-Spot is represented as a heavily fortified castle is bound to quirk a smirk or two.

My Pretty Little Art Career is a major exhibition, filling over six rooms with the fabulous fruit of thirty years ‘potting’ (amongst other things including embroidery).

There’s a wide and impressive selection of Perry’s ceramics on display, though I have to confess that in the ceramics space the most interesting work to me was not ceramic at all. It was hidden in one of those odd ‘Education Spaces’; the forgotten room in any exhibition which usually contents with touting supplicatory knowledge and audio tours of sketch pads.

Being determinedly wilfully ignorant, I usually avoid these rooms like the plague. Fortunately for me my Russian best friend is both less afraid of the plague and more inclined to learning and she was in there like it was West Germany September ’89. I went in to fish her out, only to become transfixed at the silent reel of Perry potting in double quick time. The video shows the creation of three of the pots in the exhibition and is almost breathe stealing; such is its ability to transfix the viewer.

Probably unfairly I’d assumed that Perry, rising to fame in the same time period and geographic location as the Young British Artists, was in some way associated with them and likely shared their ideas on the production (line) of art. Which is, in a word, wrong. The video shows Perry painstakingly, and with obvious love, making each of the works from scratch.

It really is jaw-dropping in its simplicity, a fact that in and of itself is an interesting indictment on the accepted processes of production in modern art today.

Of course, there are also some fabulous works that Perry has not handmade, being the tremendously oversized and yet meticulously detailed tapestries that cloak the walls of three of the rooms. These machine-made marvels are a modern testament to an ancient medium and are one of the best displays of Perry’s highbrow-lowbrow aesthetic that blurs boundaries between pop culture and Culture-with-a-capital-C.  Of course the most impressive of these would have to be the ‘Vanity of Small Differences’ series which sees Hogarth’s morality epic ‘A Rake’s Progress’ taken to 21st Century heights before being bought crashing down.

I fear I go on in my enthusiasm but it is a truly excellent and exhilarating show, displaying an amazing breadth of work by an artist who is both technically skilled and conceptually strong. Not quite as catchy an epitaph as that given by Wikipedia but I take my (imaginary) hat off to Grayson Perry, and fervently hope that my own little art career is but half as pretty.


My Pretty Little Art Career runs until 1 May 2016 and will set you back $20 as an adult, $15 as a concession or, if you’re under 12, nothing at all. Which is rather wonderful really, particularly if you’ve already discovered the joys of Grayson Perry by your 12th birthday. 

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Escape to the country

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