Arts Muse

Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years

Cara Lee visits the latest exhibit at York Art Gallery, showcasing the early work of the ceramic artist and cultural icon.

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Image Credit: Cocktail Party, 1989, Grayson Perry.

Perhaps unusually, my familiarity with Grayson Perry stemmed from my A-Level English Literature class: we were reading Tim Turnbull’s poem Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn in nervous preparation for our exam. I have to admit, I haven't turned back to many of the texts I read for A-Level, but after seeing Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years, I had to reread Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn.  Turnbull uses the written word to show that Perry’s urns and ceramics will become a definition of contemporary life, in the same way that John Keats saw Grecian urns as a frozen moment in time.

I distinctly remember my teacher asking us if anyone knew what “kitschy” meant, a word used in the very first line of Turnbull’s poem.  As I was walking around the new Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years exhibition at York Art Gallery, I couldn’t help but think of that class again.  Perry’s works are undoubtedly “kitsch”, garish and gaudy, but they are also unfailingly witty, political, and beautiful.

Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years showcases Perry’s beginnings as an artist, exhibiting works from 1982 up until 1994, when he became more firmly cemented in the art world.  The exhibition is crowd-sourced: over 150 works were put forward, owned by collectors and friends of Perry who had received the works as gifts.  70 of these works were chosen to create a feat of his “lost pots”, on display for the first time since their creation.

The thought that this is a new, never-before-seen Grayson Perry is constantly present as you walk through the gallery.  It is like being introduced to a brand-new person, one who has been hidden for decades, except the person is actually the foundation of who we know today.  The works are still very obviously Perry: as Dr Helen Walsh, the Curator of Ceramics states, “it is fascinating to see how his craft has progressed and evolved since he began working as an artist. His early ceramic works show that the distinctive style, themes and characters have always been central in his decoration." For many, ceramics now seems almost a lost art, confined within earlier times and earlier ways of working.  York Art Gallery is making steps to disprove this misconception though, with their Centre of Ceramic Art recently acquiring new collections, along with the intense creativity and pertinence found in Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years.

The early works displayed in the exhibition look at numerous themes, including gender, class, and Essex, explored often in a politically or sexually charged way.  The exhibition also follows the evolution of Claire, Perry’s alter ego, allowing her journey to take centre stage.  April Ashley in Full Sail is one of the most poignant works in the installation, focusing on April Ashley, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment in the UK.

What stood out to me was how deeply rooted lots of the works were to the time in which they were created  – but that’s part of the point, as Perry uses art to comment on contemporary society.  And as Tim Turnbull suggests, the urns will be looked at in future, to determine what life in the 1980s and 90s was really like.  Princess Diana was a notable presence in the exhibition, with Perry exploring his simultaneous fascination and repulsion with the cult following and continual paparazzing of her.  His Saint Diana (Let Them Eat Shit) is one of his earliest works, and is made from objects and tiles found in the River Thames.  She also appears in his Cocktail Party vase too, along with Margaret Thatcher and Madonna, as an examination of femininity through the ages.

About the exhibition, Perry states “This show has been such a joy to put together, I am really looking forward to seeing these early works again, many of which I have not seen since the 80s. It is as near as I will ever get to meeting myself as a young man: an angrier, priapic me with huge energy but a much smaller wardrobe.”

As Tim Turnbull alludes to, the works that are now on display in the York Art Gallery will be used in future to see what life was like, but the feeling of a very personal connection is something I will take away from the exhibition - memories from my English class aside.  Not only do we, as the public, get to see a different version of Grayson Perry, but he himself gets to as well, re-familiarizing himself with his past identity and ways of working.  This individual and artistic journey is a fascinating asset to what is already a unique and groundbreaking exhibition, and one which is undoubtedly worth a visit.

Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years is open at York Art Gallery from 28 May – 5 September 2021.

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