The Grayson Perry Exhibition: More than one kind of genius
by Alastair Hamilton -
A remarkable exhibition featuring ceramics by contemporary British artist, author and broadcaster Grayson Perry recently opened at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick.
The exhibition, mounted in collaboration with London’s Tate Gallery, is the latest in a series that has brought important works of art to a Shetland audience. Last year, a sublime painting by Hans Holbein was loaned by the National Gallery and another recent collaboration involved the British Museum.
This is the first time that the work of a recipient of the Turner Prize has been exhibited in Shetland. Perry, who won it in 2003, is known for his vases, two of which are at the core of the show, A Potted Biography. Perry is also well known for his tapestries, cross-dressing and observations of the contemporary arts scene. His 2013 Reith Lecture series, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and still available online, offered a very accessible introduction to the world of contemporary art.
The two works on display, ‘My Gods’ and ‘Aspects of Myself’, are – like many of his pieces – autobiographical, featuring his female alter ego ‘Claire’ and his childhood teddy bear ‘Alan Measles’. The classical shapes and attractive appearance of these vases are beguiling, which serves to sharpen the contrast with the challenging personal experience and social issues that they depict.
My Gods was created by Perry in 1994 and features a series of figures, each representing a different deity that symbolises the artist’s own personal theology and heavily influenced by his own relationship with his parents. As the detailed exhibition notes explain, “Perry invented these gods in the way a child worships aspects of their parents…His gods aren’t nurturing and appear abusive.”
Aspects of Myself followed in 2001; it combines a variety of decorative techniques to create a complex and challenging piece, again reflecting Perry’s own life. The imagery embodies the various “selves” that Perry had identified during psychotherapy three years earlier, including “Alan Measles” and “Claire”. The former, Perry says, represents his maleness, whilst “Claire” is “associated with feelings seen as predominantly female.”
The genius of this exhibition lies not only in Perry’s evocative and impeccably-crafted pieces, but also in the way in which the team at the Shetland Museum and Archives have chosen to present them. Taking their cue from the way in which Perry distilled aspects of his life story into these remarkable ceramics, the Curator and his staff have invited a number of Shetland residents to identify objects that are of special significance in their own lives.
More than 20 of these objects are on display. Some of the larger ones include a cushion made from a rug that formerly covered a much-missed father’s favourite armchair; a 1973 LP that continues to inspire a local DJ; and a guitar that was a 12th birthday present and which still brings joy to its owner. There’s a Spanish riding hat, worn in 1985 while crossing the Alpujarras, in Andalusia; and an old basin, a childhood find that fired a young imagination in creating magic potions, mud pies or docken soup.
There are several smaller items, among them a pair of shoes from a child who died of measles in 1943, aged just two, before her sister was born, and a toy monkey, a young girl’s reward for braving the dentist’s chair, that was to be a companion for several years afterwards.
In a recess at one end of the gallery, a small room has been created in which visitors can watch – on a 1980s television - videos in which Grayson Perry talks about his work and the Turner Prize. Also here is a painting of Perry by local artist Dirk Robertson.
Dr. Ian Tait, Curator of the Shetland Museum and Archives said, “This is a hugely exciting event for Shetland. We work hard to present new works at the Museum throughout the year to engage people with Shetland’s outstanding heritage. In addition, it is also our ambition to provide Shetlanders with the opportunity to experience art and exhibitions that would otherwise be unavailable to them locally.”
Dr Tait and his team have clearly realised that aim. Perry’s work is not only that of a brilliant ceramicist; it also inspires us to think about the kinds of challenges that he has faced. As we absorb this show, we reflect on art, society, gender and upbringing.
The integration of local exhibits is a masterstroke, invoking contributors’ personal experiences alongside those of Grayson Perry. They’re on a spectrum from joy to sadness, with family relationships a common thread that links them directly to Perry's works.
Key loans have been made possible through The Ferryman Project: Sharing Works of Art which is supported by National Lottery players through The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the John Ellerman Foundation and the Art Fund.
A Potted Biography is open until Friday 11th January. A programme of events and associated activities, including talks and workshops, runs alongside the exhibition.
Posted in: Creative Scene