Monday, May 28, 2012

Grayson Perry: Reflections on Art and Self-Discovery

Are you an artist? An art critic? Art historian? An expert on art? Would you recognize a forgery if you saw one? Or do you simply know what you like?

I’m of the latter – I know what I like. Even the best artists can do bad work, and if a piece were ugly, its pedigree or provenance wouldn’t much matter to me. I wouldn’t display it where I live. Of course, neither would I be above making a quick buck on it – say, an ugly Andy Warhol (of which examples abound). When it comes to art, monetary value and beauty don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Twenty Jackies, Andy Warhol (1964)

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that artistic creativity springs from archetypal images, elements of the collective unconscious, and that by giving shape to these images artists show us the way to the deepest part of ourselves. In other words, art at some level is a reflection of us.

Maybe so, but for me, some looking glasses work better than others. For example, I have trouble finding myself in Warhol’s Twenty Jackies, although perhaps I should take a closer look.

Not so, though, with the work of Grayson Perry, a ceramics artist from Great Britain. In 2002, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a solo exhibition of Perry’s pottery, and I had the pleasure of seeing it.

A gamin (though he was born in 1960) from Chelmsford, Essex, Perry lives and works in London. He’s probably best known for his pots and vases, many of which are intricately glazed in iridescent gold reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s gold period (think the Kiss or Klimt's first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer). Using photo-transfer techniques, scraffito drawings, and handwritten or stenciled texts, Perry subverts the extraordinary beauty of his vessels into bait for the cartoon-strip personal and societal commentary that titivates their surfaces. Apparently, the poor guy had a rough childhood and still lives in a deeply faulty world, so his surface graffiti is often pessimistic, pornographic, and even sadomasochistic. At the same time, it seems downright childish and, indeed, is typically out of the mouths of children!

But there’s humor in it, too. Perry has used his ceramics to satirize other art forms, as in Gimmick (1996) which lists artists’ trademark methods, like Jackson Pollock-drips or Alexander Calder-mobiles. Moreover, the cartoon commentary and images of violence create a dissonance that renders Perry’s work not merely beautiful but taut and makes it that much more interesting.

Dolls at Dungeness, Grayson Perry (2001), Internet photo
So there I found myself in the second floor gallery of the Stedelijk, suddenly confronted with ranks of stunningly gorgeous Perry vases stood up on pedestals like wildflowers in a meadow. I was toting an Olympus C-720 Camedia digital camera, along with a fantasy about being something of a photographer. Nowhere did it say “Fotografie Verboden.” I began taking pictures.

But upon checking the results in the camera’s LCD monitor, I discovered, well, me reflected in the gold surface of the ceramic like an appended afterthought, detritus amidst the beauty, an extraneous balloon of graffiti distorting the composition.
Detail, Dolls at Dungeness, Stedelijk Museum (2002). In the 
background can be seen an abstract reflection of the photo-

Or was it the other way around?  Had my abstract reflection actually become part of the art, at least for the purposes of my photographs, and did it in some way subtend all that crazy scribbling? Had I, the photographer, morphed into artist even if as an inquiline within someone else’s creation? Had I co-opted the work of Grayson Perry and turned it into something entirely different – a self-portrait, perhaps?

Grayson Perry, Stedelijk Museum (2002). A carnival mirror distortion of 
the photographer can be seen in the background.
On the other hand, maybe its just difficult to keep your mug out of the image when you photograph that kind of surface. Maybe you need a telephoto lens, diffuse lighting, and it might take hours, not seconds.

As Perry himself avers, in order to make decent art, you have to at least put in the time.

But that’s the thing about art, isn’t it? No matter how much you put into it, you're never quite sure you’ve got the picture. And if you have, it may be by accident.