Who Are You?, the question that forms the title of this new exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, is one, according to British artist Grayson Perry, that we often try to avoid. He feels we have a “slippery sense of who we feel we are,” and the artworks he has created for the National Portrait Gallery show explore how we understand and perceive other people — and how they perceive themselves.
It is appropriate that Perry chose the National Portrait Gallery for this exhibition, a place whose central activity and work is the portrait and how it is presented in different periods, ways, and media. In his exhibition, Perry seeks to explore notions of appearance and the complexity of identity by going beyond the traditional posed portrait. In his work, he offers snapshots from the narrative of people’s lives and demonstrates that our identity is an ongoing performance that changes and adapts according to our circumstances and experiences.
Grayson Perry first came to notice as the “transvestite potter” who won the Turner Prize” in 2003, but he’s moved on from that, though the cross-dressing remains an important aspect of his identity and artistic persona. An acute observer of people and chronicler of contemporary life, almost a modern-day William Hogarth, Perry has in recent years turned his keen artist’s gaze and curiosity on some of the major preoccupations and anxieties of modern Britain, from taste and class (in a series of tapestries in a modern reworking of Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress”) to identity (“Who Are You?”). Both exhibitions have coincided with TV series that enable Perry to probe deeper, with his disarming empathy, wit, sense of mischief, nostalgia, and a genuine seriousness of purpose.
He has stated in interviews that he feels the job of the artist is to “notice things that other people don’t notice” and in his art, and his encounters with real people, he is adept at highlighting the pedestrian, the sublime and the ridiculous, from the hubris of British politician Chris Huhne to the poignancy of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and the modern-day same-sex couple. These are not “portraits” in the conventional sense: Chris Huhne is depicted as a vase; a young female-to-male transsexual (“I Am A Man”) is a small sculpture in the style of the Benin bronzes that Perry admires; Kayleigh, the Muslim convert, is portrayed on a silk scarf — and Perry explains that the subjects themselves inspired the formats of the individual portraits, following his encounters with the subjects.
The portraits are dotted around the rooms of the 19th and 20th century collections of the National Portrait Gallery, and it was Perry who decided where each piece should be situated. This in itself is clever; in following the Who Are You? trail around the gallery, the visitor is also able to explore the fine collection of portraits on display. And Perry’s own artworks are given greater resonance and are set in context by the surrounding portraits: for example, a tapestry in the style of an Afghan rug and depicting three wounded war veterans is surrounded by the gallery’s portraits of Baden Powell, Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and soldiers Lord Kitchener and Frederick Barnaby. “The Huhne Vase” is in a large space opposite portraits of Disraeli and Gladstone, two titans of 19th-century British politics. The vase itself is decorated with repeating motifs of Chris Huhne’s personalized numberplate, a speed camera, a penis and Huhne’s face. Perry purposefully and symbolically smashed the vase and then repaired it using the Japanese kintsugi technique, where the cracks are repaired using lacquer resin dusted or mixed with gold.
The display begins with an etching self-portrait “Map of Days,” in which Perry depicts himself as a medieval walled city. At the top of the stairs is a large and vivid tapestry, “Comfort Blanket,” a “giant banknote” (Perry) which is concerned with British identity and all things British — from the Queen to fish and chips, Lady Di to the Beatles, the Mini to Monty Python — while also representing Britain as a place of safety and security. Later in the show, the “Jesus Army Money Box,” a glazed ceramic reliquary in the form of a medieval casket, depicts a Christian group that works with homeless people. Elsewhere, Rylan Clark, “X-Factor” contestant and winner of Celebrity Big Brother, is shown as a Hilliard-style miniature in a glass display case alongside portraits of novelists George Eliot and Wilkie Collins.
In addition to the subject matter portrayed, it is these references to earlier art and techniques that make Perry’s work so interesting and witty. His tapestries hark back to the great Belgian tradition of tapestry-making, while his pots recall ancient Chinese and Japanese ceramics.
This intriguing display challenges and reflects upon ideas of identity and portraiture and offers a glimpse of the negotiations we are all engaged in, consciously or otherwise, around who we think we are and how we are seen by others.