On Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003, the London art establishment was stunned. Grayson Perry, a little-known, 43-year-old transvestite artist who turns ceramic pots into cutting-edge art, had ascended into the pantheon of art gods, joining Malcolm Morley, Gilbert and George, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst. Perry had won the highest accolade in contemporary art -- the 20,000 Turner Prize.
Resplendent in his specially made 2,500 lilac and blue frock (a work of art in itself!), frilly white socks and petite red patent leather shoes, Perry took to the podium and declared, "It's about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize."
One of England's best kept secrets for over 20 years -- and one of its finest artists -- Perry has worked in relative obscurity.
So who is this humble, albeit controversial, genius?
Grayson Perry is a man who gets a charge from being tied up in contradiction. He launches vicious attacks on contemporary society from the quaintly domestic redoubt of pottery vessels. Although seductive in their sumptuous materiality, his pots slap you in the face with an almost comically serious message. They are stealth objects. Blue chip artists are portrayed as purveyors of drippy gimmicks, cool Minimalism is hijacked by posh bastards, middle class masculinity is feminized and millionaires are left standing with nothing left to buy (Boring Cool People, 1999). Even the art world, the very hand that feeds him, does not escape his sadistic scorn (Lovely Consensus, 2003).
Perry's personal profile can be equally ambiguous. One minute he's the "Essex Man" (named after a suburb of London similar to Queens) on a Harley-Davidson, the next he's donning his frilly haute couture for the cameras.
Interwoven in his artistic activities is a feminine "other" called Claire.
I first met Perry in 1985 when his dealer, James Birch, took me to the artist's Camden squat. This time around, with the Turner Prize exhibition setting the London art world abuzz, I called Perry and requested an interview. He greeted me warmly and invited me to his Georgian home in quaint Wilmington Square, where he now lives with his wife, Philippa (a psychotherapist), and nine-year-old daughter, Flo.
The elegant house was striking contrast to his more bohemian days in Camden. I knocked and as the door opened, I was caught off-guard, greeted not by Perry, but by his alter ego Claire.
Claire flaunted a replica of the dress worn by Alice in the eponymous character's Adventures in Wonderland. After catching up over a cup of tea, he suggested we start the interview. "Let's go in my wife's office, we'll be more comfortable there," said Perry, leading me through the house with a Victorian doll cradled in his arms.
Perry says that his transvestism is simultaneously autoerotic and a political act. Sissy-ness, sweetness, vulnerability and innocence are suppressed in modern man, he says. The capitalist system is the culprit. Perry considers cross-dressing his moral duty, part of a drive to proclaim a new form of male sensitivity.
Born in Essex in 1960, Perry describes his birthplace as split between "a criminal underclass on the borders of London and nice rural countryside." He was raised around Chelmsford and Great Bardfield, the scene of the traumatic landscape where much of the narrative action inscribed on his pots takes place. In Nostalgia for the Bad Times (1999), an aroused teenage Perry wanders across Essex cornfields dressed in his sister's clothes. The landscape is like something out of a J.G. Ballard novel -- empty, bleak and littered with derelict cars.
Many of Perry's images act as vessels or containers themselves, symbolic sites where Perry can project idealized versions of manhood. "My ideal of manhood was based on bad examples," he laments. Perry's father was an electrician for the RAF. He was only five years old when his dad left home. "I idealized him but he was never there for me," he said. In The Driven Man (2000), cars and motorbikes become objects of expression for male drives or instincts. The vehicles carry the tongue-in-cheek aspirations of the macho man in a barren Essex landscape peopled with prostitutes.
Perry claims his interest in clich began when his mother "had an affair with the milkman." He bitterly describes his new stepfather as being "violent, uncultured and practically illiterate." The only refuge from his tyranny of ignorance was to escape into an "elaborate world of fantasy." "I don't think anyone in my family could handle me. So everything in my being went underground. A lot of my male power was subsumed into my teddy bear, Alan Measles. I protected him because he was the chalice of my male power."
In 1979, Perry discovered the work of Chicago hospital janitor Henry Darger (1892-1972) at the "Outsider Art" show at the Hayward Gallery. Perry deeply identified with Darger's transgressive, ever-shifting fantasy world. "It was as if I saw my future pots rolled out in front of me." Twenty years later, the influence of Darger is still strong, and Perry quotes some of his menacing hermaphroditic children and their war on adults in Revenge of the Allison Girls (2000).
By the mid-1980s, Perry had started making films while still living in his Camden squat. He summarizes the films as "suburban witchcraft with lots of naffness." In his Rape of the Sabine Woman, for instance, he plays a statue "having my arms and legs knocked off." At the same time, he was participating in Neo-Naturist nude body painting performances at the Blitz club. "We got away with it because they were nude women with their big tits painted," he rememberd. "It was really challenging how naff you could be."
Perry stumbled into ceramics purely because of economic reasons. He was on the dole and had no studio. Evening pottery classes were cheap and gave him something to do at night when he wasn't making films. He started by making crude plates. These early works were made by coiling, an elementary pottery technique he still uses to this day. For images, Perry adopted sentimental stock pictures of dogs, flowers and landscapes, along with an adolescent shock repertoire of Swastikas and occult symbols, and added a dash of his own tongue-in-cheek sadomasochistic savagery.
"When I started making plates, it was about how I could wind people up," Perry said. "Even now I'm looking for the charge in my work, wearing my heart on my sleeve. I'm attracted to things that make me feel uncomfortable, that make me think, 'Oh my god I've stepped over the mark here'. So I started using sexual and fascist imagery."
Up until his being short-listed for the Turner Prize, it is striking to note after 18 years of solo exhibitions in London galleries such as the James Birch Gallery (1984-85), Birch and Conran (1985-90), Anthony d' Offay (1994-97), Laurent Delaye (1999-2002) and his current mega-dealer, the indomitable Victoria Miro, not one feature article on Perry appeared in a serious English art journal. His reputation exploded in 2002 in the tabloids and broadsheets when 32 of Perry's pots were featured in the "New Labour" show at the old Saatchi Gallery on Boundry Road. Much of the press was reluctant to accept ceramics as art.
"Pottery is problematic," says Grayson. "One reviewer said there may very well be merit in my work but she was so prejudiced against the medium of pottery she couldn't even comment. Why? What has pottery done?"
Unlike most of his yBa counterparts who employ third-party manufacturers, Perry still makes his vases by his own hands. "I'm an old-fashioned artist, an expressionist in some way," he says proudly. He has become a master at his craft, combining virtuoso skill with an unbridled imagination. His most recent pieces are more luscious and technically proficient than ever before. "I can't pretend to be ignorant any more," he said.
But the biting images still remain. Not wanting to be associated with the "pretentious tosh that pottery has produced in the last decade," he adds, "I'm an artist who just happens to make ceramics. I'm here for my ideas and images, not my pots. This is why I make ordinary pots."
Did he say ordinary? But like so many of the elements of his life and work, it's the contrast and contradictions that reveal the unmistakable genius of Grayson Perry.