Welcome to “The Most Popular Art Exhibition in the World!” – Grayson Perry’s latest public performance in his fluid identity as man/woman, craft potter, celebrated fine artist, esteemed Reith lecturer and TV presenter. His new show is at the Serpentine Gallery in London, on the site of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851 – the hugely anticipated show of international culture and industry in a specially-constructed crystal palace. According to Perry, his exhibition is potentially even more sensational.
Identity and how we define ourselves within society is at the heart of this exhibition. Just inside the entrance a large piggy bank blocks the way, with two heads and different slots for Urban, Left, Male, Leave, Fear, Poor, Old, and many other options. Feel like you might fit into more than one slot? Put another coin in- it’s all the more money for Grayson! Next is a vast woodcut of Perry himself, reclining, nude, made up as his alter-ego Claire, with breasts and penis. Equally self-aware and playful are the two nearby ceramic vessels entitled “I Really Love You Super Rich Person”, and “Puff Piece”, with the invented sycophantic remarks of famous art critics inscribed on its body, (“Wow” says John Berger).
One room shows the works made in his Channel 4 documentary “All Man”, which investigated cultural prejudices surrounding masculinity. The phallic pot “Object in Foreground” is one of Perry’s less subtle works about bankers in The City. It is decorated with images of money, along with George Osbourne’s face. Beside it, another towering woodcut titled “Animal Spirit” represents the stereotype of alpha masculinity as a horned bear with an erection labelled “reasonable” and “objective”. On the subject of Brexit, Perry has made two pots (one for each side of the debate) depicting his own biased perceptions of the type of people who voted for each.
An art exhibition by a transvestite exploring the idea of the self and more specifically, gender fluidity couldn’t be more appropriate at a time when this subject is the current hot ticket for media debate. Rather than achieving a subtle commentary on our society’s beliefs and identity, however, these illustrations of stereotypes throughout the exhibition highlight how ridiculous it can be to try to strictly define a person. Perry enjoys a special polymorphous position as a cross-dressing ceramicist with a teddy bear and a big macho motor bike which defies categorisation.
Having started cross-dressing when he was a child, Perry has now become a self-proclaimed mascot for fluid identity. He chose to dress Claire as Little Bo Peep because this is the furthest from alpha masculinity: “vulnerable, innocent” and pink. “I tick so many boxes” boasted Perry in a recent interview.
In this exhibition, Perry addresses quite a few minorities in the art world (and by consequence wins some small ownership over that minority), despite not being a part of it. A flag on the wall, entitled ‘Gay Black Cats MC’, shows two grinning cats embracing on a motorcycle as it escapes the bared teeth of a rearing lion in a domed church, not to mention the candy pink “Princess Freedom Bicycle” (custom-made for his alter-ego Claire) and the pink hearts on his motorcycle. All these grant him a ‘gender privilege’ over the female, gay, black or ‘straight white male artist’. In the “most popular” current identity debate, he is a clear winner.
But Grayson Perry continues to present himself as a jester on the margins of the art world and British culture, licensed to observe everything from the outside. In self-consciously confronting his own influence and “popularity”, he excuses the contradictions that are so obvious throughout his self-presentation. “Irony has become this crippling get-out-of-jail-free card”, he says. Yet his play on outsider art, a talismanic shell sculpture of the artist’s teddy bear in the exhibition called “Outsider Alan” pretends to be something outside the mainstream.
Perry may still enjoy performing as a twee, marginal, craft potter, but as early as 2008 he was ranked number 32 in The Telegraph’s list of the “100 most powerful people in British culture”. It is with this power that Grayson has made himself untouchable, beating the critics to the first and last comment through his popular TV programmes, lectures and books.
One label he can’t hold on to is his self-made reputation for controversy. I recall walking, amongst large crowds of families, through his 2015 Margate exhibition – “Provincial Punk”. In a festival atmosphere, large groups giggled and photographed the pornographic pots and obscene slogans. Perry is mainstream. His self-conscious title: “The Most Popular Exhibition in the World!” is, irritatingly, appropriate.