Grayson Perry’s pretty art career
As soon as you lay eyes on Grayson Perry you notice something ambiguous about him. There are the ravaged pop-star looks – think Keith Richards with blond hair – and the raucous workingman’s laugh. And yet his clothes today are brightly coloured, a chorus of yellows that might get him beaten up at closing time. Then there’s his voice. In his unapologetically unrefined Essex accent he delivers serious intellectual discourse: on philosophy, history, psychoanalysis, critical theory, art theory and more. He talks quite a bit about sex, too, directly and descriptively, accompanied by that laugh. And all this before we even start talking about his alter ego, that other him, the demurely dressed Claire.
Perry is a package of contradictions, even by art world standards. The transvestite artist works in multiple disciplines: tapestry, drawing, but most famously and enduringly in ceramic pots that he decorates with words and figures of biting social and political satire on high-gloss surfaces. They are mostly vases or urns, covered with line drawings and verbal mottos: “Say goodbye to your mum”; “I’m into off-beat stuff”; “Sex and drugs and earthenware”. The pictures, black outlines filled with colour, often include Claire as well as a teddy bear named Alan Measles. In one, Claire’s penis is connected by a sausage-string umbilical cord to Alan Measles’ navel. From a distance, the works are pretty. Draw closer and you see quite a bit more going on: rebellious, subversive, maybe even shocking to those who don’t get out much.
Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003, the first transvestite potter to do so. He is now an establishment figure: Grayson Perry CBE, a member of the Royal Academy, chancellor of the University of the Arts London. In 2013, he delivered the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures, broadcast here on Radio National, and edited into an entertaining and thought-provoking book called Playing to the Gallery. He received all the honours as Claire. There is a picture of him with his wife and daughter at the CBE ceremony, an unremarkable photograph of three pleased women wearing nice suits and hats to meet the Queen.
Perry started dressing in women’s clothing when he was 13. “I was into bondage well before I was 10,” he says. “Most perverts will tell you they had some pretty early experiences. I was into kinky things long before I hit puberty.” But how can you know it is a fetish and not just curiosity at that age, I ask, naively. “If you’re a boy, it’s fairly obvious,” he says gently, as if breaking the truth about the Easter bunny. “We have a little indicator gauge.”
We are talking at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, which is showing the largest retrospective of his work anywhere to date. My Pretty Little Art Career contains rooms full of ceramic vessels, drawings and notebook pages. Wall-sized tapestries exploring similar themes, a later development in his career, come as a brightly coloured shock. “The very first plate I made in evening class is upstairs,” he says “The plate with ‘kinky sex’ written on it.”
Perry was born in Chelmsford in 1960. The family split when he was seven, after his father discovered his mother was having an affair with the milkman – one reason, Perry says, that he hates clichés. He didn’t see his father again until he was 16, when he fled his own household to live with him. That didn’t really work out, either. He has a sister and two stepbrothers. “I don’t keep up with them much,” he says. “My family was like a dysfunctional bomb that went off and scattered us all.” He has been estranged from his mother for more than 20 years.
Three constants run like red threads through his life – art, his outré predilections and, for almost 30 years, his wife Philippa, a psychotherapist. Following them, he was able to find a way out of his deeply troubling psychological maze. “I’ve spent most of my life with her,” he says of his wife, “so I am the product of the relationship. She’s been my biggest influence.” Their daughter, Florence, is now 23. He also credits his own six-year psychotherapy, undertaken when Florence was four and he found himself slipping into a serious funk, with changing him. “I find therapy as a discipline incredibly helpful as an artist – you know, I am my own instrument and it polishes my interior lens. You have to constantly run a bullshit detector over yourself.”
And yet, his wounded childhood has fuelled his art and his social critique. I wonder whether sorting it out might have been risky. “There’s a romance attached to dysfunction, which I find appalling,” he replies. “Sanity and happiness are just as complex and subtle and difficult and moving as insanity. If I had a choice of who to sit next to, an unhappy or a happy sane person, give me the happy sane person every time!” He delivers the closing words in crescendo, ending in a joyous shout.
Perry was a cadet in school, planning to apply for Sandhurst military college, when a conversation with a teacher derailed him. “My art teacher recognised I had something going on and said, ‘I think you’d do well at art school.’ It caught me just at the right moment.” He had been a good student when he was younger, but had succumbed to lethargy. He only needed O-levels, which he already had, to get into art school, but put on his skates to get a good mark in A-level art.
It was a girlfriend’s sister who put him on to pottery. He was living in a squat in London with Jennifer Binnie and her sister Christine, founders of the Neo Naturist art group. Christine, a trained potter, was attending a night-school pottery class to keep her hand in because she didn’t have a workshop. “She said, ‘Come along, it’s cheap, the teachers are okay, it’s really close...’ ” Perry says.
“I thought I’d make sculptures – I’d done a few things like that at art college. And then I saw that other people were making vessels. The whole class was set up for traditional pottery. So I was overhearing some of the techniques and I just picked it up. I was very much about drawing and collage at the time and I liked the idea of making an object that used my skills. And then I’d have an object and I could sell it; it would be a saleable thing. Christmas was coming!” That cackling laugh again.
Perry served a long apprenticeship, working hard, building a body of work, known only to the cognoscenti, before the Turner Prize catapulted him into celebrity. Even now, he works at his craft. While other famous artists have a studio with minions doing the hackwork, Perry still makes everything by his own hand. Except for those giant tapestries, of course, which he designs for machines to make at lightning speed.
The other works in Perry’s retrospective – drawings, tapestries, metal sculptures – are equally intriguing. Photographs of himself as Claire are more documentation than art photography, though they carry a faux patina of age. His etchings of invented maps – Map of Days, Map of Nowhere, Map of an Englishman, Print for a Politician – are funny in a sobering way. Map of Days contains a road named “Boasting”, which runs into “Bullshit Detector” past “Devil’s Advocate”. A building that looks like Westminster Cathedral is named “An Imaginary Refuge” and above it hovers a sketch of Claire, tagged “The Inner You”. Elsewhere on the work, there’s a road marked “Alpha Masculinity” that connects to “Ambition”, which ends in a ring road round a park, marked round the circle with “dark side”, “spiritual side”, “creative side”, “bright side”. It’s hard to move on until you’ve checked every nook and cranny.
Spiritual side. Perry attended St Mary’s Church of England primary school, but religion sits lightly on him now. “If you had a Church of England fundamentalist, he’d make you come round for tea,” he says with a cackle. “Who’d have thought, when we were growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, that religion would rear its head as it has? It wasn’t discussed. It was never on the news. It wasn’t a thing. And now it’s screaming at us every day.”
He hadn’t heard about one particular type of spiritual discourse when he slipped up last year. Perry claimed an exhibition of Australian Indigenous art on show in London wasn’t contemporary art at all, but a kind of ethnography. The remark came off the top of his head. He was criticised roundly, and that motivated him to look further into the art form. He has since apologised, which didn’t stop one journalist at his Sydney press conference doggedly demanding satisfaction from him on the subject over and over again. He patiently repeated his apology until the reporter was ready to sit down.
Art, for Perry, is actually the diametric opposite of religion. “People find comfort in those certainties,” he continues, “whereas creativity is about abandoning that.” Of course, some consider art to have replaced religion in the 20th century. “Well, here we are, in a cathedral,” Perry replies archly, waving at the walls. “The nature of the way we look at art comes from religion. We make a pilgrimage to a special building and meditate on things. Art has certainly replaced some aspects of religion. It doesn’t do very good pastoral care, but it does good building and objects. And it has a few crazy ministers.”
In Perry’s church, the latest addition is the tapestries. Some of them are sequences. The Vanity of Small Differences (2012), for instance, is a series of six, based on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. “I identify with his Englishness,” Perry told Britain’s Channel 4 at the time, “his robust humour and his depiction of, in his own words, ‘modern moral subjects’.” The tapestries are full of the everyday: people sitting at dinner, mugs of coffee, cars, pets, pot plants, mothers with children, car accidents (albeit including people covered with blood). The works are gentler, less blatantly satirical than his wordy pieces, and the caricatures are underwritten with pathos and understanding.
His cast-iron sculptures are even more open-hearted. They carry no trace of irony. Collages of found materials – bits of cloth, or wood, or bottles, or signs – they have ancient and Eastern accents. Our Mother, which he made in 2009, is particularly poignant today, when millions are on the move, fleeing war and starvation. It depicts an androgynous-looking person carrying a baby and loads of baggage, leaning on an ecclesiastical staff topped by an image of the Madonna.
So art is not all about outrage for Perry, or talking truth to power – the tropes of Romanticism and Modernism. He claims postmodernism as his milieu, with the freedom to cherrypick from the tangle of eras and cultures that globalisation and technology have made available. But he is, and confoundingly so, given his own work, sceptical about art as social critique: “We’re going through a very sociopolitical phase in art at the moment, where everything seems to be about how worthy your issue is. It’s a long legacy of the ’60s and radicalism. I’d like to see more right-wing artists.”
He laughs hard here, so much that it’s difficult to tell if he’s just being provocative. But no. “I mean, it’s assumed that if you’re an artist you’re a liberal, anarchist, romantic, whatever. And I think art is open to the whole spectrum of human thought, as long as it’s not doing any harm. I’ve always been a Labour supporter, but as I age I don’t demonise Conservatives as much as I did.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Perry potter". Subscribe here.