When Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his Grecian-like pot, dressed as his alter-ego Claire, he was only half jesting when he said, “It’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize!”. His laissez-faire attitude to crossing the gender line (or should I say striding over the gender line, in huge yellow platform shoes) has brought him a lot of followers, both the lovers of art and those who live outside society’s norm.
Not exactly a shrinking violet, I was almost put off the man by the slack-jawed hyperbole surrounding him, his outfits, his wife and daughter and his man-as-art self-image. He’s like Lady Gaga, putting the ‘art’ in artpop and using his visual props (in this case, fashion statements) to drive his art statements home.
That is what I thought, anyway, when I first came across Perry in a magazine I was reading while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room circa 2004. I remember being curious about this artist dressed as a life-sized doll, but not particularly interested in the artwork itself because pottery was not a medium that really excited me.
It was only earlier this year, when Perry did a series for the BBC called ‘Who Are You?’, that I learned there’s a lot more to the artist than meets the eye. In three hour-long episodes he spoke to a number of people from varying backgrounds about what ‘identity’ meant to them. During the course of each episode he would talk to each person, or group, about their understanding of ‘identity’, whether that was as a ‘queer’ dad, a ‘larger’ lady or a member of the deaf culture. Whilst chatting with his subjects he would create a sketch for a final portrait to be hung in the National Portrait Gallery, nestled amongst the busts and relics of the heterosexual, white upper-class gentlemen.
During the course of the interviews Perry said being a portrait artist is like being both a therapist and a detective. You observe, analyse and draw out what you can about the subject’s personality, but you also find yourself searching for clues to those deeper parts of the psyche that perhaps the subject himself is unaware of. You then have to stitch those fragments together into a one-off piece of artwork that encompasses what was gleaned through verbal and non-verbal communication.
I loved the process from start to finish, the way Perry questioned his subjects, forced them to think about and analyse how they saw themselves and how he transferred that experience into art. The process of creation, that transmogrification from the real to the imagined has always fascinated me and I felt that the artist’s final pieces were spot on.
‘I Am A Man’ depicts a Peter Pan-like character and was created for the wonderfully brave Jazz (later Alex), who was going through a female-to-male reassignment.
‘Melanie, Georgina and Sarah’, ‘larger ladies’ comfortable and sexy in their flesh.
‘The Memory Jar’, a very Perry-esque pot is a poignant sign of a lovely couple being tested to the very limits by the onset of Alzheimers. As Perry discovered, the loss of one’s memory of shared experiences can result in the fragmenting of the identity of loved ones. If you don’t remember our wedding day, or that wonderful picnic we had last year, then it might as well not have happened.
For all the hype surrounding Perry, I have come to realise that it is just that – hype. Having an alter-ego or two, or being a loud and proud transvestite is such a way of life for him that it’s easy to forget he’s wearing false lashes and high heels. Because he is so at ease with what may seem at odds to some people’s sense of ‘normality’ it becomes as insignificant as, well, what you choose to wear that day, when the best of us know that outward appearance is for show and the real self is somewhere beneath the surface.