Well, he’s back. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d never been away. Fresh from delivering the Reith lectures, exhibitions nationwide, various television shows for Channel 4, countless broadsheet interviews, building his ‘dream house’ in Essex and much else besides, Grayson Perry is back.
His latest offering is a book of sketches, selected from across his career. He began drawing as a boy in notebooks his grandmother gave him, filling them with images of racing cars and comic-book characters. It was at art school in Portsmouth in the early 1980s, however, that Perry began sketching in earnest, a practice he kept up when he subsequently moved to London, a lack of money for studio space meaning it was his only artistic outlet.
Suburban housewives in tweed coats appear, as well as Barbie dolls, motorbike racers, crying mummy’s boys, toy soldiers and crucified pin-ups. For those interested in the roots of Perry’s transvestism, gender stereotypes abound; there’s a sense in these early works — fantasy collages all — of the artist desperately trying to work out his sexuality on paper. Perhaps the most striking image is of Perry dressed as Margaret Thatcher, in pink power-suit and matching handbag, his demure facial expression offset by a blood-spattered backdrop.
Perry stopped sketching once his career as a ceramicist took off, only returning to it, for fun, in the late 1990s as a way of passing time with his new daughter Flo. His fondness was reignited, and he says he hasn’t stopped since.
The bulk of the book comprises Perry’s preparatory sketches for his successful works of recent years — such as his tapestry series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, which charts the chequered progress of a self-made millionaire through the British class system. From very personal politics in the early images, we now see Perry turning his attention societal.
The trouble is that there is little one takes from these sketches that we didn’t already from the finished works. Perry is no draughtsman in the league of, say, Rembrandt or Ingres, whose sketches are compelling artworks in their own right rather than simply staging-posts en route to a final product. There’s no thrilling encounter here with an artist in neat, raw or intimate form.
Given Perry’s lust for the limelight, this book feels rather an unnecessary intrusion on the cultural landscape on his part and, at £40, rather an unnecessary expenditure on ours.
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