23 is inscribed with the following text, which was written by the artist.
“In a world where we do not know the colour of our blood or the sounds of our agony, we are cut off from our own mortality by a wall of nicities [sic] Is it any wonder we crave violence the forbidden fruit of our Passion the flavour of our ecstacy [sic]”
The references to ‘forbidden fruit’ and ‘our Passion’ carry a religious connotation, underpinned by notions of sadomasochism. Perry has spoken of his interest in Christ’s crucifixion as an event mixing pain and sexual arousal, an idea which he illustrated in another work called ‘kinky sex’ (1983). Moreover, as he has said, ‘Sado-masochism, bondage, ritual humiliation, cross-dressing and infantilism formed my core subject matter’.
The significance of the number ‘23’, negatively stencilled across the plate in a yellow glaze, is unclear. Speaking about the use of text in his work, Perry has said:
I have always used written text in my art and words featured a lot in my early ceramics. It seemed easier to be funny, and to convey complex ideas, with words. Also, back in the 1980s, Britain was not as much of a visual culture as it is today: I thought the audience would feel obliged to read all my texts and thus spend longer in the exhibition. I also love the look of words in art.
A number of stamps are apparent on the work, along with a mixture of other techniques. The plate has been stamped with one of Perry’s potter’s marks: at the centre of the upper edge of the plate there is a ‘£’ sign. Other potter’s marks from this period include ‘T.V.’, a smiley face, a skull and cross bones, and various other esoteric markings. These represent an extension of Perry’s complex iconography which ranges across themes of consumerism, money, sadomasochism, and so on.
In 1984 and ’85, Perry had solo exhibitions at James Birch Fine Art, London. Four more exhibitions followed with Birch & Conran between 1987 and 1990. This work, 23, is visible in a photograph of the private view for the 1987 exhibition (fig. 1). (After it was exhibited, this work was subsequently owned by Birch himself.) Perry has described how he met Birch through the art dealer Timothy Prus, who bought some of his girlfriend Jennifer Binnie’s paintings.
Later [Timothy] brought another young dealer called James Birch round to our squat. Seeing my early plates lined up on the mantelshelf James offered me an exhibition there and then at his space on Waterford Road in Fulham. […] James Birch teamed up with another dealer, Paul Conran, and they opened a gallery in Dean Street, Soho, where I was to have three more solo shows. […] Birch & Conran had to close in 1990 owing to the rent trebling overnight.
This plate is one of the works which Perry made and exhibited with Birch & Conran in his early years, and
23 belongs to a period which has recently been characterized as his ‘pre-therapy years’ (1982-1994). This epithet was suggested by an exhibition at the Holburne Museum, Bath, and it is a subject of growing public and academic interest. (Perry underwent six years of psychotherapy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the course of which he worked through problems arising from his fraught childhood, when his father was absent and his stepfather was abusive.) Investigations into the period have been assisted by Perry himself who has said that ‘I look back at my early pieces now and I find them delightful and hilarious. I enjoy their frenetic energy and humour but I wince at some of the texts stamped into the surface.’
With Birch & Conran, London James Birch Private Collection, 2019
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