VALLEY CHEESE: British artist Grayson Perry enchanted a capacity audience at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Mary Craig Auditorium last Sunday, July 28, with a slide lecture that made it abundantly clear why he has become, in addition to an acclaimed artist, one of the most sought-after speakers in the contemporary art world. Clad in what he described as “just the sort of daytime frock you’d wear to speak at a museum,” Perry arrived in a bright yellow dress with a frilly pink collar, wearing red patent leather shoes and a wig. His is not the drag of a drag queen, however, with its emphasis on sexuality, but rather an oddly tasteful, nearly decorous kind of mild affectation that’s easy to forget about once Perry begins to talk in his firm, quite manly voice.
And what a speaker! As in the wonderful quotation from W. H. Auden with which he began, Perry aspires to “A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.” He is utterly local, not only to England, but also to Essex, where he grew up, and to London, where he came of age among such post-punk pioneers as Leigh Bowery, Malcolm McLaren, and Boy George. And more and more every day, he is prized elsewhere. Working in multiple media, including recent success as a television personality, Perry’s longtime signature field remains ceramics. As an art student in the 1970s, a period he experienced as in thrall to the monumental and the minimal, Perry turned the other way, saying “all right then, I’ll make small, precious things.”
Scanning the rich panorama of his work to date, the artist offered several more equally important insights into his methods, many of which served to qualify his gleefully contrarian counter-suggestibility with powerful sources of direct inspiration and influence. Perry collects American folk art, particularly quilts, and Afghan war rugs, among many other things, and he’s constantly visiting museums and galleries for new ideas. “I find something I like in a museum, and then I copy it,” he asserted several times. Of course that doesn’t mean that what he creates will look much like what he’s copying, but it does add a marvelous layer of art-historical resonance to what he’s doing.
The longest description of the talk was devoted to a recent series of tapestries that are based on the Rake’s Progress paintings of William Hogarth. The Vanity of Small Differences — like Perry’s television series, In the Best Possible Taste — concerns the perennial importance of everyday aesthetics as a silent but powerful marker of social class. Combining the wit of an 18th-century poet with the eye for detail of a reality-television producer, Perry has created an idiom that’s mesmerizing, and all his own. He’s a satirist with a generous streak and an iconoclast with a vast affection for the object. He’s also an artist who demands, and rewards, one’s full attention, and at this talk, he got it.
FREEDOM MAPS: When it comes to voting rights, there are maps and then there are maps. Unfortunately, as of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, in states such as Texas, legislators will immediately exploit the opportunity now presented to employ such map-based, second-generation barriers to the polls as gerrymandering to continue to discriminate against non-whites. Artist Amos Kennedy gets it, and his series of letterpress prints on maps, fans, and posters currently on view at Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery is the summer’s most righteous art-as-activism show. To meet the man and hear more about his Detroit project, stop by the gallery during 1st Thursday, August 1.