Grayson Perry collaborations and pansexual pageants: James Birch reflects on a fabulous life

Grayson Perry and James Birch at the opening of Perry's Holburne Museum show Courtesy of Louisa Buck

Its been a busy and nostalgic time for the curator, art dealer and all-round impresario James Birch. Grayson Perrys first gallerist, Birch's track record also includes landing Francis Bacon his first show in Moscow in 1988 and enabling Gilbert & George to make their debut in Russia and China shortly afterwards.

Recently, this notable behind-the-scenes operator has been revisiting his earliest dealings with Perry in an exhibition devoted to the potters Pre-Therapy Years. The show, which opened last month at the Holburne Museum in Bath, includes a number of works from the time the two worked together between 1984-90.

Birch has also been journeying even further back down memory lane with a simultaneous show that he has curated at the Redfern Gallery on London s Cork Street. THEM shines a significant new light on an often overlooked period of the mid-1970s—a time which coincided with his first forays into the wilder shores of the art world. Together, these two key shows straddle a slice of cultural history that still has strong reverberations today.

Birch clearly remembers the summer evening in 1974 when his sixteen year old self was invited to a party on the roof garden of Biba, the legendary 1970s department store on Kensington High Street. It proved to be a damascene moment where he remembers being “stunned by this fabulous crowd" and thinking "this is what I want, this is life!”

Among the extravagantly-garbed partygoers was the flamboyant artist Andrew Logan, whose giant fibreglass flower sculptures were part of the roof gardens exotic décor. Fast forward to early 2020 and one of Logans enormous orchids now presides over THEM. The exhibition pays homage to Logan and four of his artist contemporaries and Biba regulars—Kevin Whitney, Duggie Fields and the late Luciana Martinez and Derek Jarman.

This quintet perfectly personified the flurry of stylish and often fabulously kitsch post-pop glamour that preceded the gritty snarl of punk. The title comes from a 1976 article in Harpers & Queen (now Harper's Bazaar) in which the social commentator Peter York identified Them as a clique of high-camp art school aesthetes who were “excessively literate in the language of style” whilst also being the “cognoscenti of trash” and “aficionados of sleaze”.

All the above characteristics are in abundant evidence at the Redfern Gallery. Whether in a memorable photograph by Johnny Dewe Mathews of a dragged-up Derek Jarman, resplendent in pantyhose and legs akimbo, conversing with a languid Logan who is swathed in billowing silk, or in the cocktail of retro-references in Duggie Fields sharp-edged angular nudes striking poses in suburban interiors. Muse to them all was the late Luciana Martinez who repeatedly appears in Kevin Whitneys vivid photorealist portrayals of the 1970s demi-monde as well as in Andrew Logans glittering broken mirror sculpture. She also features in Derek Jarmans cult punk film Jubilee (1978), lashed to a stake by strands of barbed wire. But Martinez was also no slouch at the other end of the paintbrush as her own elegantly louche portraits on the walls of the Redfern confirm.

The artist James Moores and James Birch at the Redfern Gallery opening in front of Kevin Whitney's painting Antonia © Dafydd Jones

A key gathering point for the many modes of Themwas the Alternative Miss World, Andrew Logans extravagant pansexual pageant. Founded in 1972, Logan would simultaneously host/ hostess, dressed in half male, half female garb and was assisted for many years by Martinez as his "scintillating secretary". Derek Jarman took the crown as Miss Crepe Suzette in 1975 while James Birch, having by then thoroughly integrated himself into the scene, sashayed down the catwalk in 1978 in a cheeseburger costume as Miss Consumer Product.

Martinez and Jarman are sadly no longer with us, but the Alternative Miss World continues to this day, with the surviving members of Them still in evidence and Logan an enduring hermaphrodite master/mistress of ceremonies. James Birch remains a stalwart attendee and his early protégé Grayson Perry is also another prominent AMW participant. In 2018, Perry was Logans high profile co-presenter and competition judge, but his very first appearance was as a contestant in the AMWs water-themed 1985 incarnation where he assumed the role of a fetishistic fisherman, dangling his then-girlfriend Jennifer Binnie from a fishing rod. This debut took place the year after Perrys first solo exhibition at James Birchs gallery on the New Kings Road, when the impoverished aRead More – Source