The must-see contemporary art show of the season is at The Gallery at Windsor. Located at Windsor Properties, the gallery is a highlight of the exclusive planned community founded by Canadian businessman W. Galen Weston and his wife, the Hon. Hilary M. Weston. Mrs. Weston is the curator of the Gallery’s annual offering.
This season’s show, “Grayson Perry: Making Meaning,” is the first part of a three-year partnership between The Gallery at Windsor and the Royal Academy of Art in London, says Laura Kelley, gallery manager.
Perry’s meteoric rise as both artist and household name in Britain began in 2003, when he received the prestigious Turner Prize, an award for the most notable exhibition by a contemporary British artist in the year preceding the prize.
Perry is not so well known in the U.S.; to Kelley’s knowledge, the Windsor show is only the second solo exhibition the artist has had here. The first was in 2006 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
And although Windsor may be second in that regard, Kelley notes that the current offering marks the first time three-dimensional artworks have been displayed at the Windsor gallery in its 16-year history.
But that is not the gallery’s only groundbreaking first.
Perry’s artful presentation of himself at exhibition receptions for his work can easily outshine the art on display, and his appearance at Windsor’s private reception for the exhibition turned a few heads.
“He is a transvestite with a well-developed alter ego he calls Claire,” says Kelley, who confirms that Perry came to his reception attired as a woman. Perry, who stands over 6 feet tall, wore a hot pink mini dress (oversized Peter Pan collar, pleated skirt) that showcased his 57-year-old legs to an enviable degree.
Now that Perry has returned to England, the 12 art objects on display at Windsor’s gallery vie only with each other for the visitor’s attention.
And each is a star in its own right.
Perry first gained recognition for his work in pottery and the show does not disappoint: three large vases, crowded with figural story-telling, are on display. Also on view is a figural sculpture in cast iron, two tapestries, three satirical maps etched in the style of 16th century Dutch cartography, two color sketches for ceramic pots, and a piece of embroidery that was inspired by antique battle flags.
Kelley says that Perry sees himself as a social commentator in the tradition of the 18th century English painter and printmaker William Hogarth, whose best known series, “The Rake’s Progress,” chronicles the downfall of young Tom Rakewell, who inherits his miserly father’s fortune and proceeds to squander it in the most lavish and reckless pursuits available in the third decade of 18th century London.
Like Hogarth, Perry depicts the conflicted progress of humanity in contemporary Britain and beyond, but he tempers his keen sense of irony with a fey love of human fashion and foolishness.
The first object you will gape at in the gallery is “Comfort Blanket” — a tapestry over 9 feet tall and a little over 26 feet wide. Dated 2014, it is the most recent artwork by the artist in the show.
The tapestry was designed by Perry, whose drawings for it were digitally synthesized by Spanish programmers and woven on a computerized loom in Belgium. The textural and history-laden weight of tapestry bestows a certain gravitas to Perry’s playful, patchwork composition. The textile is displayed on a curved wall built especially for it to suggest the work’s intention to enfold you in its warm content.
The overall design of “Comfort Blanket” suggests a British bank note; an abstract facsimile of the Union Jack occupies its top left corner; a portrait of Queen Elizabeth fills an oval reserve at right. The rest of the space is crammed with words, phrases and acronyms that bring to mind all things British in the categories of history, culture, commerce, cuisine and slang. Among these are “Shakespeare,” “A Nice Cuppa Tea,” “Brollie,” “The Beeb” and “Rolls Royce,” as well as “Liberty,” Tolerance” and “The Rule of Law.” “Wm. Hogarth” is there, too; his name curls around the bottom of the Queen’s portrait.
Xaque Gruber, one of the knowledgeable docents who shepherds visitors through the show, says that he has counted “around 300 Briticisms” in this artwork.
“Perry loves language and his art all boils down to words and illustrations,” says Gruber.
Visitors to the gallery will need to give themselves an hour to peruse the dozen works in the show. Each one is a dense concentrate that must be mixed with time to achieve the full Grayson Perry experience.
“The Walthamstow Tapestry” of 2009 is modeled after a medieval epic tapestry — the kind that shows the course of an important battle, the reign of a king, or the holy life of a saint. Here the subject’s title refers to a once derelict, now trendy part of London frequented by artists (Perry keeps a studio there) and wealthy elites. Through it winds the course of the modern Briton. He is seen emerging as a babe in a gush of red from a woman’s womb at the far left side of the tapestry. Presented as both male and female characters as the story progresses, the babe represents the British consumer at different stages of life. They follow the red flow of life as it wends through a maze of brand names to its ultimate end. The rivulet drains into the devil’s maw, and the aged consumer finally appears on his deathbed.
Of the stories the vases have to tell, one is a fairy tale. “The Near Death and Enlightenment of Alan Measles” of 2011 follows the adventures of Perry’s childhood teddy bear, from his crashing a plane into the Latvian countryside and being nursed to health by women in traditional costume, to his ultimate recovery and enlightenment at the side of a Buddhist priest.
The etched maps on display show whimsical lands with tongue-in-cheek place names. For example, “The Island of Bad Art” has the outline of a crazed-looking dog; the precincts within him have titles that include “Just Plain Ugly, and “Just Plain Dull.”
An Englishmen is composed of many things, the good and the bad, all mixed together. The “Map of an Englishman,” of 2004 “Looks like a map that you’d see in a Tolkien novel — like Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings,” says Gruber.
At the heart of this inland country are two great citadels; the larger is labeled “SEX,” the other “LOVE”; the “River of Orgasm” separates them, and thereby divides the country into western and eastern halves. A large forested area in the left half is “Fear,” its towns with scary names; “Unknown,” “Unforgiven” and “Bad Faith” among them. A “Land of Wishes” is on the island’s opposite coast, but be careful what you wish for: “Fundraiser,” “Paparazzi” and “Drunken Fury” are some of the town names there.
The nethermost point in “Map of an Englishman” is the “Land of Bleak” and its northernmost tip is “Puberty.”
If that does not give you an idea of the sense of whacky humor you will enjoy at the show, nothing will. A gorgeous catalog published by Windsor for the exhibition is available that includes pictures of other works in Perry’s oeuvre.
During the past three years, the artist has increasingly turned to producing and appearing in television documentaries about culture and social class in Britain and also in other parts of the world.
The artist’s belief, says Laura Kelley, is that thousands of people may experience his work in galleries and museums, but through television, he can reach millions.