Grayson Perry by Richard Kelly
“Art is colors and shapes and looking good, that’s what Art’s about,” says artist Grayson Perry in this interview with Laurie Taylor form the excellent Sky Arts series In Confidence.
Perry, who is best known for his beautifully crafted ceramics that are illustrated with images of “explicit scenes of sexual perversion—sadomasochism, bondage, transvestism” and his fabulous tapestries, goes on to explain how he thinks “Art kids itself it’s some dangerous teenager.”
Perry is certainly a true rebel, for rather than opting for the supposed controversies of conceptual art popularized during his years as a student, he chose pottery as his “prime medium” as he explained in the biography Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl:
I was attracted to pottery because it was naff; that was the subtext. I was aware of ceramics being the underdog and that was one of its saving graces. It’s very British; pottery will never become bad taste. It will always have that woody, nutty, wholesome, truth-to-material-ness around it. It was never going to be a flashy, gay, window-dressing art, it was always going to be humpy, heterosexual and earthy. However trite and dilettante the images I put on the clay, the material would bring it, literally, down to earth. One of the great things about ceramics is it is not shocking so I thought, ‘I can be as outrageous as I like here because the vice squad is never going to raid a pottery exhibition.’
Perhaps not, but Grayson often decorates his high quality pottery with imagery that is at odds with their attractive appearance. This technique was evident from his first work in 1983:
I had seen the ceramics at the V&A, returned to the evening classes and asked the teacher, ‘Have you got a plate mould? I’d like to make a plate.’ The very first one worked reasonably well—because I put a coin over Jesus’s cock it appeared as if he had had an enormous wet dream while being crucified. So I made my first ever plate, which was called, Kinky Sex.
Perry often includes autobiographical imagery on his ceramics, in particular the adventures of his transvestite alter ego “Claire.” Perry’s interest in dressing-up and fetishism started at the age of seven when he made a noose out of his pajamas, which he attached to the headboard in his bedroom and tied around his neck.
I don’t think I wanted to commit suicide—maybe I was suicidal—I don’t know. It was very dangerous. That was my first sexual experience.
The first fetish story I read was about a man who went, dressed as a woman, to visit a prostitute. The prostitute strapped him to a crucifix and he had a noose tied round his neck with a stool under his feet that he stepped on and off to be able to have the experience of hanging.
From fetish stories found in pornography left carelessly around his mother’s home, Grayson moved onto his own “bondage games… set in a prisoner-of-war camp where [he] would be bound and humiliated by the prison guards.” Eventually, Grayson found an outlet for his feelings in transvestism, which he described in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl:
If the unconscious can’t get what it wants emotionally in a normal way, it will find an alternative pathway to get it. If you can’t express your feminine side as a man, something decides, ‘Well, you’d better dress as a woman.’ If you can’t get a hug from your dad, you wrap yourself up very tightly in the bedclothes instead, though you don’t equate the one with the other. It’s your subconscious’s cry. It’s a predisposition, sensitivity or an emotional vulnerability in a person and if that person is brought up in a harsh environment soon the fetish world comes along offering a solution. As a child, not for a moment did I think, ‘This is because of my parents.’ Until I was an adult it never occurred to me to equate my sex life with any lack in my childhood parental experiences. My body and mind only whispered, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, try that.’ It would be a turn-on and the reward was a bit of a stiffy and a bit of a feel.
Grayson Perry was a deserved winner of the Turner Prize in 2003, and like his art he is an immensely likable, delightfully subversive and highly intelligent man. Somewhat improbably, Perry has been taken to the British bosom as a “national treasure” and as an English eccentric (think Boy George meets a naughtier Damien Hirst). The artist was selected to deliver the BBC’s ultra prestigious Reith lectures in 2013 and was given a CBE (while in drag) in January by a “giggling” Prince Charles. Even better, according to Perry, was a casual reference made to him on the long-running BBC soap opera, Coronation Street.
“Democracy Has Bad Taste,” the first of Perry’s Reith lectures