‘This is what [Perry] is best at: nimble social observation laced with sardonic knowingness. He’s a sarky collector of telling details who uses humour as his primary weapon … The DNA of this quintessentially British cheekiness can be traced back to Hogarth ... Like Hogarth, Perry uses humour as both a weapon and a delivery system connecting him to the bigger audience he seeks to address’
Executed in 2003 – the year that Grayson Perry became the first ceramic artist to win the Turner Prize – Saint Claire 37 wanks across Northern Spain is an outstanding example of his celebrated vases. Standing at nearly a metre in height, the work depicts the artist’s transvestite alter-ego Claire amidst a collage of imagery inspired by his cycling trip in northern Spain that year. Perry, a keen mountain-biker, rode along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, arriving at the cathedral two weeks later. ‘Religion and kinkiness tend to go together, and the vase is about my sexual fantasies’, he explains. ‘It was based in large part on religious art, in particular those polychrome wooden altarpieces that often look a bit knocked about. I tried to create the ceramic equivalent of this, the look of worn paintwork, in the figures that are in low relief. Alongside some of my kinky iconography – me in a chastity belt, Claire as a saint with a halo, and a bizarre transfer I found of Santa Claus in a dress – these are drawings based on the landscape I’d seen, including the Santiago cathedral which appears in the background’. The work’s irreverent title, he explains, is also intended as a subversive echo of ‘those Richard Long works with titles like A Seven Day Walk across the Andes’ (G. Perry, quoted in J. Klein, Grayson Perry, London 2009, p. 136).
It was his ceramic vases that first brought Perry to public prominence as a member of the so-called Young British Artist generation. Following the success of his first major solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 2002, these works propelled him onto a new global stage. Though made using traditional coiling methods, their virtuosic surfaces deploy a complex variety of additional techniques – from glazing and embossing to incision, relief and photographic transfers – which frequently require several firings. Referencing Greek pottery and folk art traditions, the classical forms of his vases are held in tension with their piercing contemporary narratives. Through disparate imagery, Perry’s complex surfaces chronicle his own past, his female alter-ego, sociological concerns and current political issues: most recently through the pair of ‘Brexit’ vases included in his solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery this year. In doing so, Perry challenges pottery’s status as a purely decorative and utilitarian craft, transforming his vases into vehicles for cultural and psychological enquiry.