Monday, November 24, 2014

An artist of the portrait

Who are you? That was the simple question posed by Grayson Perry in his recent three-part Channel 4 series - but it's one that provided some fascinating answers. Intent on exploring the complexities of identity, the Turner Prize winner focused first on modern individuals, then on modern families and finally on modern tribes, selecting for his portraits subjects whose (self-)identities were unstable, in transition, under threat or just unusual.

While determined to get to know his subjects in order to be able to reflect their personalities rather than just their outward appearances in his portraits, Perry acknowledged from the outset that this was ultimately an impossible task. Identities are fluid and, shifting, whereas portraiture inevitably has to freeze them in time to a greater or lesser extent. That said, for his portrait of the young woman who had come to identify with Islam, for instance, he was able to depict her ideological and spiritual journey away from the world of Western capitalism in a relatively dynamic way.

For other subjects, identity was not a matter of a personal voyage of discovery, but of something created, shaped and nurtured in relation to other people. The residents of a Jesus Army home were shown to rely on each other (a surrogate family) for strength and emotional support more than on any deity, while deaf activists also derived the strength of their resolution and defiance from being part of a tribe.

When it came to the portraits themselves, Perry's choices of medium and artistic reference points were thoughtfully and skilfully tailored to each individual case. Hence TV presenter and former Celebrity Big Brother winner Rylan Clark was depicted as a digital caricature, a post-modern reboot of the Elizabethan miniature (the piece was aptly titled The Earl Of Essex), and the Muslim convert's portrait took the form of a printed hijab.

The contrasts were stark and illuminating - between, for instance, Rylan, who was surprisingly self-aware about the precarious nature of the outward self he had deliberately constructed to shield his "real self" from the world, and Jaz, born a woman but undergoing gender reassignment, who was determined to modify his outward self to reflect who he felt he really was inside. Of all Perry's subjects, the latter was the closest to his heart, given his own transvestism.

Radically altering the actual nature of your body is the most extreme means of self-fashioning, but for some subjects what was most important was not changing physical appearances but perceptions of those appearances. While sympathetic to the plus-size Big Beautiful Women he spent time with, Perry nevertheless questioned quite how successful their mission could hope to be; while they may be able to redefine the way they think and feel about themselves, how others see them is largely beyond their control.

This, arguably, was the crux of the programme: identity is both internal and external, both something we project outwards and something that is projected onto us - whether we like it or not. Perry was acutely aware of the risk the portrait artist takes in presenting people with an image of themselves, but it was a risk he refused to shirk. Guardian reviewer Andrew Anthony was quite wrong to claim that "None of the artworks revealed anything that didn’t conform to their subject’s self-image"; on the contrary, in most cases the results were a synthesis of self-image and Perry's own perception. In some cases, this perception was positive - Jaz, for instance, was portrayed as a heroic figure - but in others, Perry was sharply critical. In deliberately smashing and reconstructing the pot portrait he made of the unlikeable and uncontrite Chris Huhne, he depicted the fragility and vulnerability that the disgraced former MP refused to show himself. Similarly, his cartoonish Technicolour portrait of Northern Irish Loyalists was a bold (and brave) mockery of their dourness and their affection for and affiliation to a version of Britishness that died out in the 1950s.

For the Loyalists, identity was something of which to be fiercely proud, something that needed to be staunchly defended. The most affecting of the subjects, a man suffering with dementia, was also experiencing a serious threat to his identity, but had no defence. Perry spoke eloquently and with feeling not only about how traumatic it must be to lose your memory and with it that "hinterland of experience" that gives us self-confidence, but also about how much carers' identities are fundamentally changed too, suppressed and subsumed as a result of constant devotion to their partners.

The series was a superb insight into the art of portraiture but more significantly the nature of humanity, and through it all Perry was excellent - sympathetic, adept at setting his interviewees at ease and teasing out candid revelations, not afraid to challenge or ask difficult questions. He and his great dirty laugh should present everything.

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