Grayson Perry: Pot luck

He shot to fame as the crowd-pleasing, cross-dressing, Turner Prize-winning potter. But the real Grayson Perry is a more complex character than his image suggests.

John Walsh
Saturday 16 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Grayson Perry's workshop-cum-studio in Walthamstow, east London, is a complete mess. Every surface has disappeared under a thick layer of white dust. Great fat clay pots stand around on tables like obese children, gaily coloured shards of aborted experiments lean against the window frames, a tray of what look like small clay pigs (but are, in fact, teddy bears) stands by a firing kiln like scones on baking day. The walls are a riot of objets trouvés - colour-magazine photographs of exotic landscapes, pictures of random tributes to roadside accidents. The floor is covered in some claggy gunge that adheres to your expensive trousers. Wherever you turn, or walk, or sit, or stand, a few thousand molecules of Perry's raw materials cling to you. "Everyone who comes here wears black trousers for some reason," says the artist, beaming with satisfaction. "I've watched dozens of them walking off up the road afterwards with white bottoms ..."

With no trace of creature comforts anywhere, it's the workshop of a very masculine artist, and Perry, when discovered in his work clothes, without his public transvestite plumage, is a very blokeish sort of chap. Though his blond hair is worn long, his manner is far from ditzy. His eyes glitter alarmingly. He resembles, to a disconcerting degree, the homicidal (and long-haired) vault-robber played by the late Alexander Godunov in Die Hard.

He's big in America and Japan these days - a major exhibition of his work opens in Tokyo next April - and tomorrow night he gets the full South Bank Show treatment, in a tribute programme presented by Melvyn Bragg and directed by Robert Bee. I wondered if the programme-makers spent more time on Perry's creations or his frocks. "I haven't seen it - but my wife always says, 'Make sure they don't make it into another bloody film about you dressing up in women's clothes!' And it can be annoying when a purportedly serious journal interviews you and you read the article and it's a sensational piece. It's so tiresome. I really do get fed up with it."

Whoops. Bang go questions three to 13, then. The trouble is, from the moment Perry first appeared on the general public's radar in 2003, when he won the Turner Prize, he has himself been such a piece of work, such an artful construct, it's hard to discount the chap from his labours. Is he, like Gilbert and George, his own finest artwork? "No, that's wrong," says Perry. "I've never said that putting on a dress is art. I've been doing it long before I started making pots."

We talk about the protean nature of success. Since his Turner triumph, the value of Perry's pots has gone through the roof. Art collectors are now prepared to pay £30,000 for the joy of possessing one of his beautiful neo-classical, fat-bellied clay creations with their images of fright, inner turbulence and child abuse. Does that mean he could become a lucrative cottage industry? "I've been making pots for 20 years, but I've always made other things," he says. "I made sculptures long before. I've got this far by doing what I want, and if I started worrying about obligations to a market it would be a horrible life. If tomorrow I woke up and thought, 'I cannot face doing another pot', I wouldn't do it."

But, I say, it's the pots that the art world admires. They represent your success. "That's a misconception," says Perry. "People think the Turner Prize is a switch that, once you've flicked it, suddenly projects you to art stardom. But the Turner is just the point at which the art world brushes up against the mainstream media. Success in the art world is a much slower, subtler thing."

Perry is clearly a little conflicted - almost embarrassed - by fame and success. He tries to dismiss the meretricious renown of prizes and talks about the "value" bestowed by posterity and peer approval. But a minute later he's bitching about the up-and-down reputations of people he doesn't like. "Long-term value depends on a whole history of nudges and winks from art grandees and hype. It might get you so far but - look at someone like Julian Schnabel. Massive in the 1980s, a sort of rock-god superstar. Now everyone's saying, 'Ooh, he's going down the pan ...' and he's not regarded as doing anything great."

Schnabel, of course, turned to directing movies in the 1990s as a creative holiday from painting. Perry also diversifies in five or six directions. Along with the sculptures and pots, he does etchings, "and in my last show I had an embroidery thing I commissioned." So you didn't actually make it? "Well, I designed it," he says. And got a clutch of seamstresses to embroider it? "No," says Perry with a hint of asperity, "a machine does it, up in Nottingham. It's how most embroidery is done." Amid his other formal experiments, did he ever actually paint? "I've never done an oil painting. I mean, I used to paint at art college, I used to make collages, but I never wanted to be a painter."

He is bracingly rude about conceptual art ("where sometimes you don't even need to see it; you can have it described to you over the phone") and gleefully enthusiastic about the sensual and decorative. "I would always want people to come and see my things in the flesh, and enjoy the colours and textures and patterns - and the ideas in it, too." No wonder Perry is embraced by the public as a Good Thing. Quite apart from his personal eccentricities, he represents a return to craftsmanship, plasticity, hand-eye co-ordination. Like Nick Park, the doyen of Wallace and Gromit "claymation", Perry does things the long, hard way, slowly building up his giant pots with his fingers rather than using a wheel ("I just make sausages, and add them on and go up and up until I get to the top"). Which prompted the possibly philistine, and almost certainly enraging question: is he a craftsman rather than an artist?

"A lot of people have this idea about craft being second-class," he says mildly. "Artists are supposed to be ideas-men now, rather than skilled artisans, which is what they were in the past. But if you look at the past, what's amazing is the fantastic, sophisticated skill on display. Look at a Velazquez and you don't think: 'Oh, what an amazing idea for a painting.' You think: 'My God, look how he makes a blob of paint look like gold at 10 paces.'" He also hates the casual disparagement implied in the damn-with-faint-praise word "decorative" - "but if you write off the decorative, you might as well write off the entire contents of the Victoria and Albert Museum, whereas I think there are some amazingly profound and moving pieces in there. There's an inherent intellectual snobbery about this hierarchy of fine and applied art. It's a class thing."

His annoyance goes back to art school, where Perry became fascinated by the prevailing anti-crafts orthodoxy. "Being good at anything was sort of anathema. The word 'precious' was an absolute swear-word. People would say, 'Oooh, you're so up your own arse.' You're a real square if you produce anything that has any kind of inherent value." Meaning what? "Meaning, man-hours and skill, and traditional ideas of value - intricate decorativeness or rarity or the work of refinement. So I thought it would be an interesting route to go down."

What a charmingly old-fashioned phrase that is, "the work of refinement". As Perry would doubtless acknowledge, there's something slightly comical about such prim, Barbara Pym locutions issuing from - as he appears today - this weatherbeaten roustabout with his roll-up cigarettes and his motorbike. But then there's a touch of the ludicrous in the tension between his forms and his subject-matter. He has, for instance, commissioned a large tapestry that features, amid the random paraphernalia of war, a teddy bear dressed as a suicide bomber. (It's a response to his discovery of some rugs in Afghanistan that seemed based on traditional patterns but turn out, on closer inspection, to feature helicopter gunships and rocket launchers.) I ask if such topical expressions represented a move away from personal confession to public statement. "War is one of the themes I've worked on for 25 years," says Perry. "I did some work about the Bosnian conflict. I did a whole dinner service about the first Gulf War." His face doesn't betray a flicker of concern at the bathos of this solemn pronouncement.

Perry insists that beauty must have more to it than the merely pretty. "It needs to have f some grit in it. Part of beauty is to challenge. People often look at my stuff and say, 'Why does it have to be shocking?' But I think that's what makes contemporary art beautiful. You have to work a bit to like it."

The personal grit in his art is his childhood. As recorded in his first volume of autobiography, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl (admired by such critical heavyweights as John Carey), it was a hard time. He grew up in rural Essex, but at five years old, watched his parents split up when his mother got pregnant by the milkman. The milkman, who married Perry's mother and moved in, was also a violent nightclub bouncer who battered his new wife and bullied the small boy. Grayson retreated from the world into his imagination, inventing an elaborate war game that involved Lego guns, ships and planes, an army led by his teddy, Alan Measles, and a nasty enemy in the German army, led by his stepfather. Such nursery games are usually abandoned (with relief) as puberty approaches, but for Grayson they became woven into his identity. He fantasised about being captured, tied up and humiliated, forced to dress as a little girl - and the little girl became Claire, the nine-year-old alter ego as whom Perry dresses up for parties.

One picks one's way gingerly through this psychological minefield, but why should he embrace the Claire persona, when it started out as a humiliation? "It's about enjoying the humiliation," he says, as if any fool could understand that. "All the bad guys are in my head. In every dream we have, we're all the characters, and every fantasy we have, we're all the fantasy characters, too. In the S&M world, people are willing to swap roles. It's the emotion in the air, the humiliation, that turns people on. And for me it was about creating a situation in my mind where the emotions turn me on."

Perry happily admits to being a keen consumer of porn, and marvels at the micro-niches of fetishists. "If you have a fantasy," he says gleefully, "no matter how bizarre it is, somewhere out there is a website for it." His own secret longing? "When I was a child, I had a fantasy about being in a hospital and having plaster casts on. Of course, bondage is very much about wishing for an ideal parent, wishing for 'love plus boundaries', the two things parents should give their children. As if they're saying, 'I am tying you up to look after you.' My version as a child was plaster casts, in which you were looked after but immobilised. And I was amazed to find a website that catered to that fetish ..."

Every kid wants his (Egyptian) mummy. Perry hit his sexual stride at a very early age. He claims he was first "turned on" at nine, when he was in art class at school and "they made me wear a turquoise rubberised smock, which just felt exhilarating". By puberty, he was a fully-fledged "trannie" (his own word): "I started when I was 13, dressing up as housewives or businesswomen, and kept on until I was about 40. I used to call it the heraldry of my subconscious. It was wearing my subconscious on my sleeve. These days I'm more interested in designing outfits that are more ideas-driven. But my main motivation is still what turns me on." He shyly concedes that, despite his matter-of-factness about being "a bloke in a dress", he is potty about fashion and fabrics. He designs his own frocks. "It's my favourite hobby, but I design them only for me. I don't design to make women look beautiful." Not unless they're an unusually flat-chested, wide-shouldered size 18. He loved being guest fashion editor of Spoon magazine ("It was great, going to all the fashion shows. Something I'd always wanted to do. A shocking orgasm of beauty and loveliness") but won't repeat it.

Grayson, I said, you're 46. What on earth are you going to do for a mid-life crisis? Most men buy an electric guitar or decamp to Maidstone with a blonde stenographer, or start riding a motorbike. But you? He smiled. "I've had a motorbike since I was a teenager, so I doubt that will happen. But I don't feel like I've missed out on things. I've done a lot and been through some exciting times. There isn't a big regret in my life. Somehow, life has kept me doing the things I really enjoy."

One may be tempted to laugh at the extraordinary Mr Perry, for his sober pronouncements about absurd things, his casual yoking of big themes (war, violence, insanity, abuse) with seemingly tiny or childish motifs (teddies, dolls, toys). But in his career so far, he has done something that artists strive for a lifetime to achieve. He has turned his bizarre imagination into a part of our civilisation, turned the map of his mind into a country we can visit and explore - however foreign and peculiar it may seem at the border.

'The South Bank Show: Grayson Perry' is showing tomorrow at 11.10pm on ITV1

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