Thursday, December 15, 2011

GRAYSON PERRY AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The 'Kenilworth AM1' in the British Museum atrium
To the pantheon of gender-bending motorcyclists - the infamous, notorious, or hidden - we must add Grayson Perry, multi-talented artist, transvestite, Turner Prize winner, and dedicated biker.  I was lucky to catch Perry's show at the British Museum in London last week, 'Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman', and began smiling the moment I spotted the 'Kenilworth AM1', his custom Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, at the head of the grand curved staircase in the museum's atrium.
Grayson Perry with his H-D Knucklehead-based custom motorcycle
The smile never left; Perry's exhibit of selected Museum artifacts beside his sculptures, paintings, and quilts, weaves a thread of humor and unexpected meaning between the old and new artworks, as if all art ever created were, in his words, "the material culture of a bohemian diaspora, a global tribe whose merchants and witch doctors bartered with a wider population by selling artefacts invested with a special quality; the quality of art."
'Humility' and an air-cleaner wing-nut of Alan Measles' head
The 'Kenilworth AM1' is Perry's two-wheeled 'popemobile', a performance-art prop created to carry Alan Measles (Perry's 50 year old teddy bear/muse/alter ego/totem) on a pilgrimage to Germany, in a glass-sided reliquary mounted, naturally, on the 'sissy bar' of his custom Harley.  The AM1 is built and painted up much like Perry's trademark 'drag' outfits, using highly saturated colors and shapes reminiscent of 'Outsider' art.  The elongated pink-and-blue petrol tank is painted either side with 'humility' and 'patience', which Perry notes are the "opposite of rocker lifestyle texts."
'Patience' and 'Doubt'...
With a matched riding suit of bright yellow boots, an outrageous lavender Peter-Pan-collar jumpsuit, and spring-green helmet, Perry's riding ensemble creates a motorcycling image which borrows nothing from anyone or anything...there's simply nobody else on the road with the cojones to wear THAT outfit while riding THAT bike.  While custom shops, tattoo parlors, and clothing outlets are busy selling 'individuality', Perry has taken a brave and lonely path, to BE an individual.
Perry at a fair in Germany; the country was chosen for his 'pilgrimage' to atone for years of childhood fantasies casting Germans as evil enemies...
"One fact that every transvestite has to come to terms with is that a person dressed up in the clothes of the opposite sex is somehow inherently funny. I feel it has profoundly shaped my own outlook on life. I regard humour as an important and necessary aspect of art."  Grayson Perry explores, via humor and an 'innocent' surrogate, a whole range of difficult subjects; religion, violence, sexual politics, poverty, and the encroaching i-vapidity of our gadget-dominated culture.
Leather Alan Measles-head saddle, with 'Chastity' logo
Perry began as an art-world 'outsider' himself, as a self-described 'transvestite potter' and unlikely candidate for the prestigious Turner Prize; ceramics have rarely been considered worthy of inclusion in major museums, and like motorcycles, are dismissed as 'craft'. While Perry honed his skills as a ceramicist, he explored deliberately provocative imagery with his glazes, and gained a following for the brilliance of this juxtaposition - difficult subject matter with masterful craftsmanship.
Perry and his 'Cerne Abbas' leathers (Chris Scott photo)
Grayson Perry has always been motorcyclist; "I’ve never owned a car. I love motorbikes. I’ve got a Harley, which is perfect for summer when you want to go slow, pose and enjoy the scenery, and a KTM, which is brilliant for getting from A to B fast when it’s wet and cold and you want to feel safe. In 1989 my wife Philippa bought me a set of motorbike leathers – the first thing I ever had made for me. I designed them to be like the Cerne Abbas giant [see link - ed]. I used to wear them to art openings so I could go there on the bike but still feel dressed up.... Motorbikes aren’t manly. Look at mine. If a bloke has to prove his machismo with a motorbike, then he isn’t very macho.”"
Perry as his alter-ego 'Claire', his folk-art outfit, and a Kalashnikov...
Motorcycling, masculinity, and a therapeutic exploration of his childhood (Perry's wife Philippa is, incidentally, a psychotherapist) are clues to Perry's art at the British Museum.  His father, who left while Perry was very young, was an engineer and masculine amateur wrestler, and a biker. After he left, young Perry's teddy bear - Alan Measles, a gift on his first birthday - became a complex and psychologically loaded fantasy figure, the centerpiece of his play, the hero all his masculine fantasies; undefeated race car driver, fighter pilot, war hero.  The tour de force of Perry's new art is the elevation of Measles to the status of a God-in-the-Making, the centerpiece of a new cult, a future Deity to an uncreated religion.  The childhood stories of the bear's battles, injuries, and ultimate triumphs, have been transformed into a narrative arc of a fictional Prophet Hero, an immediately sympathetic character (who doesn't love a teddy bear?) imbued with the magical realism of childhood - that combination of keen observation with fantastic invention.

An early sketch of the 'AM1', taken from the exhibition catalog, available from the British Museum
The 'Kenilworth AM1' was sketched out by Perry, and built by 'chopper shop' Battistini's UK (who, curiously, don't claim credit for their work online, but do link to the exhibit in their blog); the project builders were Nigel Green, Anthony Foy, Adam Smith, Alan Smith, Dan Smith, and Tom Fuller.
'Pedestrian slicer' sculpture of Alan Measles as pilgrim on horseback
Note the stylized stainless steel 'Brooklands can' exhaust

'The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman' runs through Feb. 19, 2011

27 comments:

Hairy Larry said...

And I thought Dennis Rodman cut a flamboyant figure, as he passed me at about 110 mph on Highway 5, on his chopper...

Marmisto said...

Brilliant, at last an individual harley; no wonder the chop shop don't want to claim it - their customers might think that they'd have to develop a personality and make a decision that takes their bike away from the morass of 'bobbers and chops'.
What's just as impressive is that he rode it across Europe, rather than wheeling it out of a van and coasting into a custom show...
I'm off to see this [exhibition] and know it will impress.

GuitarSlinger said...

This'ns a bit too ........... errr ...... creepy for my taste , maxing out on the Weirdometer

Kind of like Ry Paul showing up in a Rat Rod . Something about it , to quote the movie " Deliverance " ' Aint right '

And anyway . Friends don't let friends wear neon and they sure as heck do not countenance neon Harley's , no matter what the friends sexual or mode of dress preferences are .

Just saying ......

The Vintagent said...

If genius wasn't weird, it would merely be clever. This man has installed a motorcycle in the British Museum, which no 'clever' bike builder has ever managed....
I encourage you to look beyond your assumptions, and recognize the achievement.

David Blasco said...

Well, yes, it's genius. You can not top this, that's the proof. Any change would make it something less.

GuitarSlinger said...

@ Paul

Genuine ' Genius ' is not ' Weird '

True genius is profound , sublime and timeless

I hardly think this M/C or its builder qualifies , no matter what some pretentious curator may believe

Weird is nothing more than ephemeral , intentional attention getting efforts by desperate people attempting to prove themselves an ' Individual ' when in fact they're a sad pastiche of everything they claim to be against

Ten years from now , no one will have even the vaguest recollection of either this bike , or the man and the curator will be but a name plate , recognizing former employees on the wall

Whereas the true ' Geniuses ' will remain locked into all our memories and well beyond our existence

Howard said...

Brilliant post Paul. I must go and see this bike.

VonSontag said...

What a great paper on a great artist ! I've read a few about Grayson Perry, but never so sensible. Thank You?

Anonymous said...

All motorcyclist do not ride a Straight line. Thanks for sharing.

Brian B.

Anonymous said...

Truly brilliant!

-DanaDanaDana

Anonymous said...

Wow! Truely!

Chris D.

Hairy Larry said...

Man I'd love to see that show. How many artists get free run of a major museum and get to 'curate' a show...just sayin'...

Davidabl said...

Sure SOUNDS like any other Knuck when it's roaring down the highway..

Anonymous said...

Heck, he won the award in 2003. For pottery! Steve McQueen won it a couple of years before that - for video - not THAT Steve McQueen.

He does look sexy with the Klashnikov, though...

Don O'Reilly said...

Great post Paul, I can't imagine where you come up with all this...

Mr. Perry (I wonder if he's related to that governor from Texas) certainly makes one think a bit doesn't he? and more importantly, laugh a little!

I guess Grayson won't be doing a guest appearance on "American Chopper" anytime in the near future... but, I've been wrong before!

cheers,

Don

Charles said...

man, now I want a new set of leathers, the Cerne Abbas man? flipping awesome! now I am thinking Nazca Lines, Kokopelli embellishments, but WOW, WOW WOW, what a creative mind. and the bike. that's not bolt-on stuff from the catalogue....

Jon Dudley said...

Inspiring, Paul, absolutely inspiring. I don't know if you caught the BBC documentary programme about this whole project but it was totally addictive. Perry is a true original and his art (for that is what it is, make no mistake) will endure.

Geordie Biker said...

A refreshing flamboyant style. A departure from the 'traditional' biker uniform. Though we would say the same thing about flashy racing leathers...

Love his Cerne Abbas leathers too! Great piece Paul (as always)

klooz said...

@Guitar Slinger- In 10 years the honesty and originality of Grayson's bike will still be apparent and appreciated and worth more than 100 non-neon choppers. Maybe by then you will see the manliness of expressing who you are, even if its pink. In the meantime, I am glad you are not my investment adviser. Your use of the word 'weird' evades real meaning. It originally meant something akin to fate. Perhaps you meant frightening?

Ferdinand Edwards said...

He has a phenomenally strong belief system behind everything he does, ie, himself. I was deeply impressed with the fact that to help the project progress, he designed a set of shamanic robes that he wore whenever going to British Museum meetings, pre and post pitch. The robes were redolent of the uniform of an ancient craftsman's guild and partly the ritual garment of, as he described 'a Shamanic enchanter from the contemporary art tribe.' As you might imagine, selling the concept, to get people thinking abour what he calls the 'reverence machine', the process by which we bestow potency and significance on objects, would just not happen unless sponsors were found, particularly tough in the current recession but big guns like AlixPartners and Louis Vuitton liked the idea and came on board. I am looking forward to a fascinating visit over Christmas.

Fe26 said...

Appropriation is neither weird nor genius. The artist has appropriated the propaganda used by Allied forces during WW2,a H/D 'Knuckle-Head' motorcycle(the symbol of American manufacturing might and symbolic freedom). Art from Mexico where they do 'Day Of The Dead' so well, the beautiful copperplate of Arthur Stace (there is a place on the top of the petrol tank that should have Staces 'Eternity' written large.
He has appropriated a drawing from the English countryside, and ridden the whole 'Shebang' to Germany,'Boom-Tish'.'Art in the approprianacionists style? Yes. Weird? No. Clever? Yes. Genius? Not even close.
Have I invented a new word? I do hope so.

Davidabl said...

Where are the boundaries between kitch, camp and fine
art? Jeff Koons and Grayson Perry's stuff both raise the
same question. Koons( infamous Michael Jackson &Bubbles the Chimp ceramic sculpture etc.) driven mostly by desire for fame and fortune, Perry mostly
by his personal obsessions..but I'd bet there's some
Koons in Perry and some Perry in Koons!

btw, Koons might make a giant inflatable pink motorcycle. But he wouldn't ride it.

Davidabl said...

re Fe26's comment Maybe almost everything has already been done..so what's left is mostly just mash-ups of other things?

Davidabl said...

Koon' Jackson

http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/interactive_features/74#

The Vintagent said...

With the evaporation of 'meaning' in contemporary arts, some artists make 'meaning' their subject matter...Perry imbues his work with the deeply personal, and comments on our world via snippets of the imagery avalanching us daily. His method is compassionate, consistent, and dedicated - a refreshing break from the very very clever art-boys mining kitsch, and literally inflating clichés.

I side with the embracers of life's richness.

Jennifer! Designs, Ltd. said...

Pure artistic Genius!

Tea said...

I would love to see this bike, so I hope it shows up on the British Superrally 2015