There’s a sense that making art nowadays comes low on Grayson Perry’s priority list. In the past 12 months, he has guest-edited Today on Radio 4, appeared on Channel 4’s Celebrity Gogglebox and seen his latest television documentary nominated for a Bafta. He’s currently taking a one-man stage show on tour in Australia.
All of this makes Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years, a new exhibition at Bath’s Holburne Museum, so welcome. It takes us back to the start of his career, focusing on pieces from 1982 to 1994. They’re a reminder of what a riveting artist he once was.
“Punk potter” is surely the best description. We witness Perry at his rawest and crudest: the 80 exhibits, predominantly vases, feature scenes ranging from sadomasochism to coprophilia. In one, a woman lifts her skirt to reveal a rabid dog where we expect to see her crotch; in another, a castrated transvestite is hanging upside-down.
Although this sounds explicit, that’s precisely – subversively – the point. Perry was exploiting the fact that ceramics have long been associated with cosy familiarity and homeliness. By tradition, they’re prettily decorated objects found sitting on Welsh dressers. Graphic sexual imagery is the last thing you expect to see on them.
Perry was never, in technical terms, the most gifted potter. None of these works was created by throwing clay on a wheel; they came from a simpler technique known as “coiling”, which tends to produce less refined results. Wonky shapes abound, though in many cases that actually increases the impact. Take Self-Portrait Cracked and Warped (c1985), so named because it developed a massive crack in the kiln. Given Perry’s lifelong fondness for cross-dressing, one is tempted to see it in terms of his split self.
To be fair, Perry says he never strove for the perfection of Italian Renaissance maiolica or Greek red-figure pottery. His figures are caricatural, his colours rarely harmonious – but what mattered most was narrative. Some pieces have almost as many characters as a Dickens novel. In A Design which Implies Significance (1992), our hanging eunuch is accompanied by not only the Queen but (among others) Diana, Princess of Wales and a baby Prince Harry too.
In recent years, Perry has gained renown as a kind of Hogarthian social commentator. His art, like his TV shows, has tackled broad societal issues such as class, masculinity and Brexit. His early work, though, was more personal. There are references to Essex, the county of his upbringing, as well as to his mother and violent stepfather. We also see early depictions of Claire, the woman he’d adopt later in life as an alter ego. On one vase, she wears a halo and, in the artist’s words, represents “the spirit of my femininity descending to earth”.
The show spans the years from Perry’s graduation in Fine Art from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 to his first solo exhibition in Mayfair (at Anthony d’Offay Gallery) in 1994. It was in the mid-1990s that he started seeing a psychotherapist – hence his choice of subtitle for the exhibition: “The Pre-Therapy Years”.
With these works, was Perry exploring his identity in a way that anticipated his time on a shrink’s couch? Certainly, many of them boast inscriptions where he spelled out his feelings in literal terms. “I am angry, like the wind, at everything and nothing,” reads one.
What we’re seeing at the Holburne, then, is a portrait of the artist as a young man – a conflicted, sexual, angry young man, to be precise. After Grayson Perry was done with it, the humble vase would never be the same again.
From Friday to May 25. Info: 01225 388 569; holburne.org