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Opinion

John Bird: Grayson Perry the great impersonator rescues art from obscurity

“Following in the grand tradition of impersonation, Grayson Perry is talking about tragedy as much as fun”

The honourable and eternal role of impersonation has not been entirely understood in art, society and culture. The Renaissance seemed to set the ball rolling in the 1400s when they imitated Roman, and at times Greek, art and social manners. Much later Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before their catastrophic revolution, imitated a milkmaid in her game-playing.

Even our great Oscar Wilde was the greatest of impersonators. He impersonated a fey, flowerlike man but who was as tough as hell, and instead of being a slouch, a part of the act, he was a hard-working jobbing writer who could turn out masterpieces over the summer hols.

Picasso impersonated a child in his art, though he never dressed like one. Currently Hockney impersonates, both in look and style, what they used to call an ‘old codger’; a dour Sunday painter you might find in an old folks’ day centre where colours and brushes were utilised to pass the hours away.

You would have to go a long way to beat the impersonation that Grayson Perry, from Essex, commits to the scene

But you would have to go a long way to beat the impersonation that Grayson Perry, from Essex, commits to the scene. His middle-aged, middle-class ‘lady’ with her bright frocks that shock and clash is breathtaking, in the best sense.

Most of the cross-dressers – I hope I am using the term right – I knew, I met in the all-night Wimpy in Earls Court in the ’60s. A place where night people would sometimes be men dressed as women. Or in Soho at about the same time, though the Earls Court ‘girls’ seemed more outrageous and risk-taking. They seemed to be sexually driven and just wanted to be taken home by some good-looking man.

Perry’s cross-dressing ‘lady’ seems more artful. More playing that long game of impersonation that I have outlined above.

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I did not get Perry until I went to the Turner Contemporary gallery at Margate last week, for the opening of his new show. In the same way that Hockney can overwhelm you in his most recent work with its fecundity, its passion for descriptions of nature, Perry’s work does the same job of overwhelming you. It is joyous, fun and thoughtful. It’s like taking the most classical looking ceramic pot shapes, nothing special about them, and turning them into stories.

Everywhere is storytelling. Every surface buzzes with anecdotes and incidences. You are lost in minutiae, little crosses with atheists being crucified to soldiers and guns countering communists and ecologists. I can’t remember all of the details but in some of his prints he mixes kid-like drawings with overviews of society.

Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize some years ago. He was probably the only artist who has won that prize that can be understood by the majority. That makes him popular. He does TV shows and appearances dressed as a woman and draws intense interest in his work. And this seems to fly in the face of how much recent art seems determined to obscure itself. That only by not being understood can it be understood; if you can get that tortuous thought. It’s that difficult now, looking at art that seems inexplicable.

Perry is raising big things, and is not just courting popularity

But Grayson Perry seems determined to court the popular and seems to have no need for the obscurity of much modern art-making.

Until of course you realise that following in the grand tradition of impersonation, as with Picasso impersonating a child with paint, he is deadly serious. This isn’t all you think. Perry is raising big things, and is not just courting popularity.

Like most clowns in the circus, their final message is not fun but tragedy and suffering – the human condition. Grayson Perry’s work is talking about tragedy as much as fun.

In the early 18th century William Hogarth painted pictures in series such as Marriage a-la-mode, and the famously celebrated A Rake’s Progress. They told stories of society and the pitfalls of life. Perry follows in some ways in that tradition. But using graphics like you might find in a comic, or written, scribbled on a school desk. They each covered the surfaces of their work detail, with little stories within stories.

Hogarth’s work, like Perry’s, is also about ‘taste’ – or tastelessness. They are both rude, intending to offend; Hogarth by showing people outside of polite society, drinkers, whores and the idle. Perry shows obscene sexual practices on the side of traditionally made and shaped pots.

Cross-dressed, or distressed you might say, tied-up men with artificial breasts strapped to their bodies grace a very beautiful yellow pot. A kind of lovely luminous yellow in fact, beautifully glazed, showing that Perry knows how to use his craft well.

He even imitates the kind of dug-up historical archaeological look; his Early English Motorcycle Helmet of 1981 looks as if it’s a relic found from 981.

His pots are astonishing, if you have never seen them. They really are worth looking at. The one big problem, though, is that like precious works of art of old, from China or Japan, they need protecting in a glass box. At least you can walk round them and see them in all their dimensions. But it would be great if Perry’s craze for popularity could be extended to allowing us to handle them, feel them, run our unclean hands over them.

Pop art and popular art might just be the final impersonation

But to do that he would need to mass-produce them, as they wore out under the influence of our grease and smears. But then it’s worth a thought: popular art that you can have in your home that does not cost an arm and a leg because it’s mass-produced, and not just one-off.

Andy Warhol, that bright shop window dresser who realised that the big bucks were in art, not windows, took everyday things like tins of soup and made them into art. He turned the everyday object upside down. But in so doing made his little bits of the everyday very, very, multi-million dollar precious.

Pop art and popular art might just be the final impersonation, for they cost a ferocious amount of money and need to be put in glass boxes so they won’t get damaged.

It’s a nice thought that Grayson Perry has rescued the art of our times from obscurity. Perry, though, is only one cross-dresser, and it might take a lot more than one to rescue art from the hands of artists who insist you are confused by their bits of stuff.

One summer quite a few years ago I returned from holiday and bought a copy of The Big Issue in the street. I was appalled at what had happened to The Big Issue production levels while I was away for a fortnight. The magazine seemed to have been taken over by a bad designer with all the photos, and there were many, out of focus. Or the kind of accidental snapshots you took by mistake; of the underarms of a fellow traveller on the underground, for instance. The kind that got thrown away in those days when you took your photos to the chemist to be developed.

By the time I had got hold of the production department, Wolfgang Tillmans – the artist who had guest edited that Big Issue and was responsible for all the, what to me looked like dross photos – had won the Turner Prize.

The Turner Prize is normally associated with upsetting a large part of the public, and making a sizable minority of it feel smug: because they do “Get It”. Grayson Perry, the year he won, was too popular for the normal tastes of the Turner pickers.

It would seem it was an aberration they had decided to go for the accessible Essex boy made good.

But they knew only too well that Grayson Perry is more than meets the eye. He is as obscure as any Hirst or Emin; he just dresses his surfaces differently. Like that other impersonator out of Essex, Jamie Oliver – impersonating a working class lad – there is more to this impersonation business than you would care to think.

Grayson might just be our greatest artist. And his playing with the popular might just be his cleverest impersonation.

Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk is at Turner Contemporary, Margate CT9 until September 13

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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