Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery
Grayson Perry is a walled city. His public persona is splashed across two Channel 4 documentary series and Claire, his famous female alter ego, is photographed by the paparazzi at every opportunity. Yet what do we know about the artist himself, the Perry behind the pottery? The answer may lie within Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, the artist’s latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
Opening the exhibition at the foot of the NPG’s monolithic staircase is Map of Days (2013). Here is the walled city made visible, Perry presented as a jagged settlement in the centre of an intricate and sprawling landscape. Here’s a perfect metaphor, it could be said, for the artist’s public existence. For while Perry is well-established, having triumphed at the Turner Prize in 2003 and been honoured with a CBE ten years later, he can still tease the establishment with his tongue-in-cheek approach - exemplified by the title of his 2013 Reith Lectures, Playing to the Gallery.
Talking of his walled city self-portrait, Perry insists that the wall is not so much a barrier as a bridge, allowing him to “absorb the influences and the ideas of the landscape" which he finds himself in. The notion of a person as a place is a powerful one: Perry suggests that our bodies and our minds are places to be protected and inhabited but at the same time are places to be shared, opened and explored.
Perhaps most striking about Map of Days is this transience made permanent. The physical labour implicit in Perry’s four etched plates is staggering but they capture only a moment of his life and his evolving identity. They are a record of what is past, unaware of the people yet to be encountered and the experiences yet to be had. Meanwhile the passage of time is recorded on the surface of the artwork itself, with each section neatly dated as Perry completed it. These dates are peppered throughout the piece and serve as a reminder both of its personal, diary-like intimacy and the temporality of its creation.
Perry’s personal map orientates the gallery visitor by providing a cartographic view of his own artistic identity. The visitor receives their own map too, which guides them around the rest of the exhibition like a grown-up treasure hunt. Weaving through ‘A National Portrait, 1919-1959’ (part of the gallery’s permanent collection) brings you to The Ashford Hijab (2014), a screen print on silk featuring Kayleigh Khosravi - who converted to Islam - and her four children. This family group draws immediate parallels with the portrait of the royal family beside it and asserts that Khosravi, encircled by the repeated patterns of her new hijab, is just as much a part of our collective national identity as the Queen.
This work also exemplifies Perry’s mastery of form, disregarding the traditional oil portrait for something befitting the subject. Thus Khosravi is depicted on a head scarf like the one she wears, while disgraced MP Chris Huhne takes the form of a smashed and repaired ancient urn and larger-than-life personality Rylan Clark becomes an exuberantly coloured miniature.
The success of the exhibition lies in equal measure with the engaging nature of Perry’s objects and its interventionist curation. Perry’s works are not assembled in a single suite of rooms but take over the entire gallery, commanding the viewer, treasure map in hand, to view them in succession. This implicit control of our viewing conditions mirrors the role of the National Portrait Gallery as a paragon of canonical Britishness. Perry’s interventions force us to question the accepted order and cultural prejudices. Each of his subjects is vulnerable to the gallery’s stern gaze and the painted eyes of centuries of straight white men; whether they are a Muslim-convert, a homosexual couple, an Alzheimer’s patient, or the artist himself. Located at the heart of a British institution, these people of modern Britain are lauded like the paradigms of portraiture which surround them.
At the start and end of the exhibition the visitor (if they’ve followed the map) sees Comfort Blanket, an expansive tapestry that abounds with national stereotypes, from The Archers to asylum. While it is easy to renounce these as clichés, their diversity strikes a chord : when I visited, every person standing in front of the tapestry visibly recognized a word or phrase that applied to them. The first time the visitor sees Comfort Blanket they see themselves; after seeing the rest of the exhibition the hope is that they appreciate how universal it is to “absorb the influences and the ideas of the landscape” they find themselves in. This specific landscape is the National Portrait Gallery, and Grayson Perry has extended the walls of his city to include it.