I was intrigued to meet Grayson Perry — who wouldn’t be? I hadn’t known his work before he hit the national headlines in 2003 as one of the artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize, which he subsequently carried off in triumph as his alter ego ‘Claire’, dressed to kill in mauve satin frock with ankle socks and red patent-leather Mary-Jane shoes. Since then, everything I’ve seen or heard indicates a truly original talent, an integrity matched with iconoclastic wit. The ambivalent, often mesmerising beauty of his ceramic vases at Tate Britain was almost upstaged by his extrovert ‘tranny’ persona, and both combined to unsettle the pundits — do pots, even ones as finely made and laden with drama as his are, really count as ‘art’? How seriously are we to take Grayson, or indeed Claire? He immediately sent up this Turner controversy on an elegant jar called ‘Taste and Democracy’ on which a scantily clad couple agree that ‘It’s about time a transvestite won the Turner Prize’, and that ‘Pottery is the new video’.
The day I met him at the Koestler Art Centre at HMP Wormwood Scrubs he was in mufti, baggy jersey and jeans, with his sleeves metaphorically rolled up to make the final choices for Insider Art, the exhibition of prison art he has co-curated for the ICA. As a transvestite and a bit of an outsider himself, he has always been interested in art from the margins, so this was right up his street. Now he found himself wandering through room upon room of paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics, hung hugger-mugger for the judging process — thousands of submissions from prisons all over the UK to the annual Koestler Awards. How did they strike him? I wondered. ‘It’s like taking a tour through the collective subconscious,’ he said. ‘Here are the concerns, hopes and obsessions of thousands of people — and they’re not much different from our own, of course. There’s a lot of beauty here, and on the whole it’s unmediated by a screen of intellectualising and art history. It’s raw and all the more powerful for that.’ He pointed out that it was like watching an individual’s artistic development: the art from the Special Hospitals often had the brilliant spontaneity and innocence of childhood, that from Young Offender institutions was groping for maturity, while that from the high-security institutions, where inmates serve out longer sentences, might bear multiple layers of irony and sophistication.
And his criteria for choice? ‘It’s intuitive, of course. Beauty is at the heart of it — what I find beautiful — but there’s also the funny, quirky incongruous art, and there’s the powerfully expressive, and there’s the “it’s-so-bad-it’s-good” contingent — there’s a lot of that!’ So we went round together, looking at his choices. ‘Art is rather like handwriting,’ he pointed out. ‘There’s a physicality in the making of it that those who use studio assistants miss out on. You’re very conscious of that physicality here, in the rhythmic, almost obsessive detailing of some of the work. And composition and colour lie at the heart of authentic talent — you can’t fake that. Collectively, it’s an anthropology of what goes on in prison.’
He is currently fascinated by how exhibitions can reveal the archaeology or anthropology of lives, indeed minds; how, like psychotherapy, they can map the human psyche. ‘Of course, in putting this into the ICA we are being artists ourselves: the ICA is the frame, and we decide what to put inside it.’ He has a long association with the ICA — that was where he first saw the sculptures of Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, and his own first exhibit was a sculpture he submitted to the New Contemporaries show there in 1980. He was amazed to be accepted then; now he jokes about being ‘Rent-an-Artist’, such an art celebrity has he become. He makes no bones about enjoying it: ‘The art world is a country,’ he says. ‘Are you going to live there, and engage with it, and learn the language, or are you just going to drop in and out, like a tourist? The latter doesn’t work.’ He’s certainly moved in for good: it suits him — ‘Only the arts would tolerate a transvestite potter from Essex,’ he quips — and he’s full of plans for the future. For him the work on the walls of the Koestler Centre has intrinsic value, but like the artefacts he found in the museums around Lincoln and forged into his last curated show at Victoria Miro, The Charms of Lincolnshire, it’s also grist to his creative mill. Will his own work be changed by this? I wonder. ‘It might be,’ he grins; ‘it’s too early to say.’
He has a keen eye for the original, authentic, witty, touching — the very qualities I found in his own disarmingly frank memoir, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. Which brings me on to the subject of Claire, born of a complex of emotions around a childhood which he wryly described on Desert Island Discs as ‘pretty normal, really — divorce, a bit of domestic violence, some low-level mental abuse...’ but which nevertheless left its scars. Claire, too, has taken the art world by storm: six foot plus of radical chic, sometimes topped off with a pair of rabbit ears on a headband, and very good legs. Anyway, I wanted to know: what did he/she wear to meet the Queen? And what’s the royal protocol with rabbit ears — do they count as a hat, and, if not, does it matter? The answer is, Claire wore a short green dress and no ears, and the Queen clearly took a couple of moments to place her, after which she was all charm, of course.
Grayson has little time to be a ‘leisure tranny’ now — life’s just too busy — but with all the events he’s invited to he gets to dress up ‘three or four nights on the trot’ every week. He still designs most of his dresses himself, though the design course he teaches at Central St Martins provides him with several more each year. ‘I generally have a new one on the go,’ he says, and they’re spectacular — beautifully embroidered or appliquéd with Grayson motifs: a collection of his dresses alone would make a stunning exhibition. When I ask him if he ever wears the same one twice he laughs his infectious, down-to-earth laugh, ‘I should say so — I’d never have enough to go round. And I don’t keep a dress diary like some of the celebs — at least not yet.’ From the little-girl frocks of the early days they’re now getting bolder, more fetishistic, more revealing: it’s anybody’s guess what he will wear to open Insider Art on 11 July — which also happens to be his daughter’s 15th birthday.