Glass attempts to better understand Grayson Perry the man who has the art and fashion world enthralled
Grayson Perry is a conundrum that poses more questions than he answers. Glass attempts to better understand the man who has the art and fashion world enthralled.
When I walk into the small study of Grayson Perry’s tall house, where the interview is to take place, I find the artist typing on his computer wearing black, thick-rimmed spectacles and jeans. He is Grayson Perry today – not Claire, his cross-dressing alter-ego. I’m slightly disappointed by this. Perry’s distinct image has become such a significant part of how he is perceived – what people think of when his name is mentioned – that it is almost strange not to see him in the hyper-feminine attire and bad make-up for which he has become recognised. The artist’s practice and persona are indistinguishable and he is consequently as identifiable for being Grayson Perry as he is for his ceramic objects. It’s a fairly rare position to hold and a role that Perry negotiates well.
Originally from Essex, Perry came to London in the 1980s after graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Portsmouth Polytechnic. He gained a small amount of recognition during the late 1990s but it was only in the early 2000s, after winning the Turner Prize in 2003, that the artist became officially noted.
Over the last decade he has had a number of large-scale solo exhibitions including Grayson Perry: My Civilisation, Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg (2008); Grayson Perry, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (2006) and Guerilla Tactics, Barbican Art Gallery, London (2002). Last year Perry curated an exhibition of his own for the third time and this was probably something of a blockbuster moment for the artist.
It was entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, and Perry worked with the British Museum to put on a show of his works that were directly contrasted to objects in the museum’s collection which the artist thought firmly resonated with his own creations. As he comments in the exhibition’s catalogue, contemporary artists have often been asked to ‘respond’ to historic material. This time, Perry turned the invitation on its head, “I have spent my entire career under the influence of the past. I wondered what I would learn from reversing the process.” The success of the exhibition was certainly a turning point for the artist, particularly on an emotional level. When asked about it he explains that this project has been one of his proudest moments, which made him feel “grown up”.
Perry’s latest exhibition takes a step away from the hand-made, decorated vessels which announced his name. This time the artist has used the form of tapestry to explore topics relating to contemporary life, such as class and social mannerisms, which have consistently been commented upon in his work to date. This issue of the magazine is based around the theme of Lust. How does that term apply to you as an artist? I don’t think I’m a very lustful person. I think one of the things I try to fight against is this raunch culture. What is it that I hate so much about it? I suppose it’s this idea that sex is some sort of hobby, like bungy jumping or something. Whereas I think it’s quite a troubled area, really. So to be described as an artist who deals with lust … It’s not really a word I would use.
How about lust as a general term? Oh I’m lusting after a new studio at the moment … Your public recognition as an artist has taken place within a relatively short time. Did it sneak up on you? I didn’t aim for it. I’ve always had a good relationship with the press. I’ve always liked talking to journalists and doing public speaking events. And then being a tranny … I’m always slightly amazed that people still find that of interest. You know, for me it’s normal, but a man in a dress is like somehow shorthand for something. You know, a man in a dress! That means you’re weird and exotic somehow! This shorthand is really quite tedious in many ways. If you’re a tranny, you get a bit bored of this response.
When you won the Turner Prize you were as famous for the dress if not more. This is how the wider public came to know about you. Yeah that’s the point where I popped my head out above the parapet, properly. But you’ve got to capitalise on that. There are lots of Turner Prize winners who have disappeared or aren’t even interested in being a public figure, and that’s fine. But it’s like the difficult second album syndrome. And I’ve managed it now. I’ve had two or three or four very well-received exhibitions.
Did you think of the Turner Prize as an opportunity to announce yourself as an artist? Well when I got nominated I said to the Press Officer at Tate – “Strap me on and fire the engine”. I wasn’t going to shirk from the publicity angle. Publicity isn’t an angle any more, anyway. If you think about social networks and the internet, publicity is the product a lot of the time. It’s not like this sort of trivial after effect. The work I make is the thing at the core of it. But its afterlife – in the electronic hinterland – that, in a way, is just as important. It’s where the images and the subjects I want to talk about go into. A lot of people complain about it: “Oh, you’re just seeking publicity“. I think they’re just a little bit jealous, maybe – they would like the attention. Look at someone like Alain de Botton, the amount of bile that gets thrown at him. It’s because he’s a good communicator and they hate it! He gets asked to go on the telly – why don’t they? Because they’re boring, that’s why. They might be deep and knowledgeable, but they’re boring!
By Allie Biswas To read the full interview, please purchase the latest edition of Glass: Lust
Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences is at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, from 7 June to 11 August 2012.
Grayson Perry on Taste will be shown on Channel 4 television in the UK in June.