Grayson Perry savours the contingencies of pottery. He often harnesses faults and inadequacies, making these a part of the finished work. As he has explained,
I often create pots difficult to make and am overambitious technically, contriving to make them very complex to balance. I deliberately don’t do tests. I’m loath to try out new techniques by doing a maquette, a dummy run, because the second time I use it is never as good as the first. Instead, I try new techniques I’ve not used before – perhaps a combination of colour or a new transfer – on major pieces. It could go disastrously wrong and sometimes it does. Often I rescue a pot, usually with gold lustre. I bodge things over but they always scream ‘bodged’ to me and probably to other potters too. But ‘bodged’ is OK because it is part of being human. I want an element of bodging in my work – I wouldn’t want it to be calculatedly perfect. I want it to be slightly flawed.
This additive approach to pottery, bringing together more and more transfer-printed imagery and clay-modelled embellishments as a work goes on, is made into the subject of discussion in this pot, Layers of Meaninglessness. A bricolage of disconnected images flicker between areas of bright, luxuriantly decorative pink and blue glazing, and stencilled patterns and images (of a rabbit, an Iron Cross, a Supermarine Spitfire, and so on).
In this work, a frontal image of Anthony d’Offay’s face is of particular significance. D’Offay was one of the leading international art dealers operating in London in the 1980s and ‘90s. Layers of Meaninglessness was made in the same year that Perry started to work with d’Offay, holding a solo exhibition at his gallery in October that year. In 2020, Perry commented in a memoir about his ‘pre-therapy years’: ‘The relationship between artist and art dealer is often fraught and in the previous twenty years I had loaded a lot of shit onto a few of them. Dealers were ripe for becoming substitute parents, particularly for this refugee from childhood. I looked to them for approval, validation and cash.’ The inclusion of d’Offay’s image in this vase was probably part of the artist’s bid to secure his dealer’s approval and endorsement.
Aside from these highly personal aspects to Perry’s work, he was also engaged in a sincere and impersonal bid to create meaning in art. The title ‘Layers of Meaninglessness’, stamped into the still-wet clay, helps to make that bid part of the artwork’s subject content. Speaking about his use of text 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.
In Layers of Meaninglessness, one of the phrases written in scribbled handwriting is ‘Hey you, fuck off’. The words are unattributed and they float alongside other ambiguous phrases and images. In a recent essay about the artist’s pre-therapy work made between 1982 and 1994, the curator Catrin Jones discussed the game of meaning which Perry plays.
‘My job is to make meaning. To make meaning in a meaningless world.’ Grayson Perry’s early works reflect this search for meaning. Therapy might have elucidated this meaning, providing a new perspective on his work, but the elements, the visual language and the ambition were surprisingly well formed from the outset.
Layers of Meaninglessness is one of Perry’s earliest works to show the benefit of his early experiments with pottery and meaning in art. The fluent combination of techniques and the growing sophistication of thematic statement in his work of the mid-1990s laid the foundation for his career-changing victory in the Turner Prize 2003. In these respects, a vase like Layers of Meaninglessness marks the beginning of his ascent into mainstream popularity and critical recognition.
The Artist Private Collection, acquired directly from the artist, 1994
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