Pope uses a bricolage of incisions, stamped letter blocks, relief-modelled clay icons, glazes and transfer printing to create a post-modern cloud of words and images. These words and images descend on the humble earthenware jar, a contradiction which delights Grayson Perry, who routinely mixes high and low culture in a spectacle of self-denying avant-garde experiment. The theme which draws together the eclectic imagery of Pope is Roman Catholicism. A transfer-printed photograph of Pope John Paul II and clay-modelled images of Christ, the Virgin and Child, and the Holy Family provide legible cues. (He had only just begun to use open-stock transfers in 1990 and Pope is one of the early examples of this in Perry’s work.)
This holy imagery is complicated by the addition of one of Perry’s drawn self-portraits, showing himself as a Monroe-like woman in a black bikini and a wide-brimmed floppy hat. An ambiguous inscription provides a further challenge to interpretation:
I HAVE BECOME A SICKLY SEEDY GOD AND THOSE THAT WORSHIP US ARE TIRED OF LOVE AND LIFE
Perry’s work is verbose and often speaks for itself. His work of this period was frequently inscribed with composed mock verses like this, stamped into the wet clay using letter blocks, while more recent works tend to use scrawled handwriting and keywords. It is uncertain who is speaking these words; it is perhaps a priest or the Pope, but it is also plausibly God Himself. Perry’s work of this period was characterised by angry, often deeply personal outbursts, and the bitter irony of this inscription belongs entirely to the artist.
The subtext for this Christian imagery is Perry’s sadomasochistic preoccupations at the time. He 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’.
Once he had completed his training as a fine artist in 1982, Perry has spoken of how appealing he found the cussed lowliness of pottery. ‘The low status of pottery somehow acted as a semi-permeable membrane to keep me at an intellectual and aesthetic distance from the orthodoxies of the fine art world.’ This work was made at a time when he was growing in confidence with the basic components of potting. ‘Over the decade 1984-94 I gradually became more technically proficient, inching closer to my goal of having the relaxed fluency to use clay, slip, glaze and enamel in the same way that I used paper, pen, paint and collage in my sketchbooks.’ The cracking at the lower edge on two sides of the square vase and the unevenness of the lines show that it was made – and not merely decorated – by Perry.
Pope was produced in a period of Perry’s career recently characterized as his ‘pre-therapy years’ (1982-1994). (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.) This epithet has been suggested by an exhibition at the Holburne Museum, Bath, held in 2020, and the period is a subject of growing public and academic interest. 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.’
Perry had solo exhibitions at James Birch Fine Art, London, in 1984 and 1985, and four more with Birch & Conran between 1987 and 1990. 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.
Pope is one of the prestigious works which Perry made and exhibited with Birch & Conran in his early years.
Birch & Conran, London Robert Tibbles, circa 1993-94
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