I’ve enjoyed watching Grayson Perry on Channel 4’s Who are You? Perry is becoming a national treasure, a status ironically cemented partly by his desire to explore identity, both national and personal. In this programme he creates portraits of people he meets whose identity has undergone some kind of shift, talking to them and becoming involved in their lives in order for his portrait to be able to explore their lives. The programmes see Perry trying to explain something about portraiture, both historically and now, and he examines ways of capturing the ‘essence’ of a subject. His methods are not those of the past; although he does some sketches of his subjects, and spends some time exploring their lives, what he produces is usually appropriate to his subject in quite unexpected ways.
I went to see the portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, fourteen of them spread across the gallery, and easily spotted among the more traditional oil paintings, as they stand out for their colour, and often size and shape. Most are not paintings; Chris Huhne is represented by a pot, as are several others, and for me at least it’s really interesting to think about how something that isn’t a traditional portrait of a sitter can still be deeply and seriously representative of a person’s identity. A decorated hijab represents one sitter, whose faith is of primary importance to her, while Perry’s self-portrait is a map of a walled city, intricate and beautiful but also in some ways revealing about the man. Chris Huhne appears as a pot, broken and stuck back together again.
Perry explores, through these fourteen portraits, not only his conception of who those people are, but who we all think we are; the programmes use themes of identity including faith, sexuality, disability and social status, and ask us to explore who we are, and why. Often I find the ideas behind the artworks more appealing than the physical works, but the scattering of the portraits across the gallery is a good one because it offers them a context of portraiture in history, in Britain, which suggests a continuing sense of identity alongside a fragmented sense of self (I realise this is paradoxical). Perry points out that ‘our identity is an ongoing performance’, one which changes throughout our lives; the more I think about this the truer it seems. What the exhibition and programme both do, as Perry’s work tends to, is demonstrate how relevant art is to our lives, making it unstuffy and contemporary whilst acknowledging the artistic heritage which is so important.