The English artist Grayson Perry, winner in 2003 of the Turner Prize, is known for his beautifully crafted ceramic pots portraying dark and often disturbing scenes of modern life through figures, patterns and text. He is equally known for his cross-dressing. Wearing fancy, childlike, custom-made party frocks, he frequently appears at events as a girl he likes to call Claire. In Mother of All Battles (1996), Perry turned to photography, mixing his practices in an image of Claire, clothed in a richly embroidered folk costume that he made himself, and holding a gun.
In his pots, Perry uses the coiling method to create vases with hand-marked or stencilled surfaces. Often sizable, they are glazed and augmented with photo-transfers and sometimes small ceramic reliefs. These elaborate objects (like the embroidered dresses) look ridiculously pretty from afar but upon closer inspection reveal satirical narratives frequently involving Perry as the victim of various depredations. (The artist has talked openly and even written a book about a troubled childhood that followed abandonment by his father.) They are also often heavily incised with signs symbolizing war and political conflicts as well as the world’s obsession with consumerism. This exhibition featured a selection of his large pots. But this time it was Perry’s most ambitious creation to date, a lively tapestry concerning cradle-to-grave consumerism, that commanded hard viewing.
The Walthamstow Tapestry (2009),which Perry has described as“the modern-day Bayeux Tapestry, in a way,”takes its name from the London borough where his studio is located. The mammoth work (it is nearly 10 feet high and 50 feet long, in an edition of three at this scale and 12 in a smaller version) was hung across the entire length of one wall of the gallery. The inspiration was a book on Sumatran batiks; Perry was drawn to their highly decorative nature, which is reflected in the vibrancy of his own piece. He rendered the composition as a drawing, and the tapestry was woven by a specialized firm in Belgium, working from a digital file.
The abundantly detailed tapestry depicts a life story—and the commercial brands that feature in it. The piece can be read from left to right, commencing with a graphic childbirth scene whose trail of blood winds through several episodes. Large, dominant figures such as the newborn baby, a hard-faced young man brandishing a knife and a boldly described woman in a headscarf clutching a Chanel-style quilted handbag to her chest are presented alongside a sea of tiny characters. These engage in a variety of activities, from banal to sordid: riding a bicycle, taking the baby for a walk while phone texting, shopping, lying about drunk and disorderly, shooting up. What at first appear to be floating random words dotting the whole surface are all in fact brand names stripped of their logos and rendered in a uniform font. Thus, satisfyingly, Perry erases distinctions among the multinational goods that daily dazzle the average consumer, rendering them plain, if still ubiquitous.
Photo: Grayson Perry: The Walthamstow Tapestry, 2009, approx. 10 by 50 feet; at Victoria Miro.