Thinking about gender in ‘Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career’

· Thursday April 21, 2016

As the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia's whopper of a show 'Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career’ comes to a close, so too does our extensive coverage. So far, we've made a printed guide, jumped on board with comedian Hannah Gadsby's analogies, listened to fashion designer Emma Mulholland's playlist on loop and adorned our airbnb apartment with Grayson-themed accoutrements. Now we turn to the insightful observations of psychedelic artist Minna Gilligan. Who nicely rounds-up the show with some critical thinking about textiles, gender roles and privilege.

It’s peculiar entering an art exhibition in real life, that is; one that you believe to already have experienced rather thoroughly via Instagram. Last weekend I cautiously ambled from the 2D realms of my slightly grubby iPhone 6 screen into the enormous 3D realms of Grayson Perry’s ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

My entrance was laced only with expectations for some sort of wild spectacle – one which I would be compelled to document and share madly on my social media accounts. My knowledge of Grayson Perry as an artist was, initially, slim to none. I tend to limit my enthusiasm for big-time white male artists in favor of those with a more interesting and less privileged gender persuasion.

‘My Pretty Little Art Career’, however, greeted me with a very feminine presence. To my right as I walked in stood an uninhabited, royally embroidered cloak. The soft green silk brocade of the garment was embellished with renderings of human eyes – fleshy pink with an exaggerated vaginal-esque shape. My initial perception was softer than I had expected, and I moved forward.

Perry’s ever so slightly wobbly ceramic vessels stand proudly with their chest out, safe under glass cubes that attempt and fail to contain their individually bizarre auras. One reads in ransom note-esque font: “sex and drugs and earthenware”, another glistens gold with cut-out magazine images pasted on like my Nanna’s old decoupage placemats.

I considered the relationship between the soft, motherly presence of the cloak and other garments, and the harsher, overpopulated assertion that the ceramic works offered. They both tentatively held within a particular type of wild sensibility that I can only identify as unique to Perry’s own work. It’s a crafted sensibility, one that he has been able to express with dynamic and seemingly unthinking embellishments and elaborations. These inimitable flourishes sit equally on the surface of a staunch, statement making ceramic and that of a rich, warm and mortal garment. They seep out with tendrils and overarchingly make anything that Perry makes belong to no one but Perry.

Since entering the exhibition the enormous tapestries had been teasing me out of the corner of my eye and I eventually ventured into their vastness. And they’re BIG. The size of them I read as a particularly masculine statement. You’ve nowhere else to go, slightly similar to the feeling one gets when being subjected to man-spreading on public transport. The tapestries are, however, significantly more fascinating to view than the elongated and entitled limbs of our trains and trams.

I read them as maps, traversing the surface with my eye, gathering information of the narrative, the protagonist, and their journey. Largely inhabited by female heroes in retro inspired outfits, the panoramas suggest a rainbow of violence, exhalation, mundanity – extremes of the human experience. Up real close to the surface I strove to see evidence of the artist’s hand – none. These mechanically produced tapestries were clean, with threads ordered and even. Perry’s use of traditional craft methods has been touted as an important statement in regards to elevating ‘women’s work’ to the heights of fine art. However, the automatic and motorized way in which these tapestries are produced removed that reference for me. Up close they felt a little hollow, absent of loose threads and the lumps and bumps of traditional embroidery.

They were in between; a man adopting traditional techniques and removing all that made them traditional techniques in the first place. The subject matter elevates women to hero protagonist, but the method in which the tapestries are made removes them almost entirely.

I visually responded to the psychedelia, the confusion, and the aforementioned wildness of Perry’s flourishes in all the vast and varied work in ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’. His aesthetic is made for me on a number of levels – but I felt uneasy that I couldn’t compartmentalize his existence or apparent agenda. He approaches his work with the perspective of both a man and a woman and of someone else entirely. His privilege as a white male artist, blessed with a feminine alter ego Claire, allows him this freedom - the freedom to be soft and harsh, right and wrong.

This rare viewpoint is interesting, and I think what I found most compelling about this exhibition is its in-betweenness. It’s Perry as puppet master, curating the best of both worlds, pairing apparent opposites and making them into singular entities that are unstable, contradictory, and enthralling. He flouts traditional techniques, he picks things up, and puts them down again as his own, her own, or both - maybe it doesn’t matter.

The overarching and rather confounding message I took from the artist and from ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’ is to, at the same time, not take things too seriously and question all that you see. It is as much his as it is hers.

This article was made possible by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in support of ‘Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career’ – part of the ‘Sydney International Arts Series’. Exhibition on now until May 1, 2016.