Grayson Perry brings his Smash Hits show to Scotland, celebrating 40 years of making art and mischief
With his vibrant cherry red nail varnish, china-rattling laugh and irreverent Essex tones, the Turner Prize winning, fellow of the Royal Academy artist, author and broadcaster is in upbeat mood as he prepares to open the largest ever exhibition of his work at the National Galleries Scotland this month.
Entitled Grayson Perry: Smash Hits, it’s a celebration of more than 40 years of his art, featuring 80 works, including ceramics, tapestry, paintings and prints, tracking the ‘transvestite potter’s’ journey from enfant terrible to mainstream artist and national treasure. It’s a status consolidated by his TV show, Grayson's Art Club which brought a splash of colour and humour to the nation in lockdown and culminated in the 63-year-old being knighted by Prince William while wearing a burgundy taffeta dress.
“It’s really exciting,” he says. “My biggest ever show and it’s a lovely space, and with the Festival being on, it’s all good.”
Best known for his ceramics and textiles which combine classical shapes with contemporary commentary and often feature his alter ego Claire and teddy and totem Alan Measles, Perry is also admired as a master of complex techniques that will be exemplified in the show by works including Personal Creation Myth, Cocktail Party and The Upper Classes at Bay. With work ranging from 1981 to the present, Perry is finding the size of the exhibition daunting.
“You look back and think is this it? Is this the peak? Also I walk around an exhibition like that and see the amount of time spent. It’s like walking into a Tutankamun’s tomb of my life and seeing it all laid out, the hours and hours I spent making things. I don’t know if I’d have the energy to make some of those things now.”
“I’ve had shows all over the world but this is the biggest. And it is in my home country… I think we’re still the same country, just about,” he says and emits six lusty Basil Brush barks, ha, ha, ha, ha ha.”
It’s a sound he makes often and it fills the studio in the London home he shares with wife Philippa, the psychotherapist and Guardian agony aunt, daughter Flo and Kevin the cat, and is infectious, even as he’s talking about weighty themes such as nationalism, identity, sexuality, class and snobbery.
For that is Grayson’s gift, to take potentially unpalatable ingredients and serve them up on an aesthetically pleasing plate with a side of humour and slice of absurdity.
“The minute I knew I had the show in Scotland I wanted to bring things from the TV series, but also a few new works about English identity as well. It’s the most charged place perhaps to talk about English identity on the planet in many ways,” he says, relishing the challenge.
“I think that’s one of the issues I’m most fascinated by at the moment; that idea that identity is a very nuanced thing but nowadays the internet demands a kind of crystalline precision so people put their profiles up in a very rigidly linguistic way and life’s not like that.”
“There’s no nuance with the internet. It’s either yes or no, black or white, and it’s ironic that it is now the cauldron of polarisation. I always say when two people meet in real life it’s like two clouds meeting.”
Which begs the question, what kind of cloud is Grayson?
“I’m a storm cloud obviously me, ha ha ha ha ha.”
He continues: “We get bogged down with these very black and white definitions and I kind of want to go ‘life’s not that easy mate!”
Smash Hits will see work presented not in chronological order but in themes such as masculinity, sexuality, class, religion, politics and identity, threads which have run through his work since he started making art as a teenager.
“I’m always interested in things that are around us all the time and affect our every moment but we don’t necessarily pay attention to. Every item you buy or choose, you’re exercising your taste and our entire biography comes down to bear on the moment you tap your card on the machine and yet you’re not paying attention to it.
“I’m fascinated by those forces that operate in society, mainly unconsciously and developed over a lifetime, subtly, from experience. So I’m interested in those sorts of things. BIG subjects. Really all those subjects came out of psychotherapy, those unconscious forces that are shaped by your past.”
Has Perry had a lot of psychotherapy?
“I had six years back in the late 90s, early Noughties,” he says. “And my wife’s a therapist so that’s the language over the breakfast table, how we look at the world. Obviously she’s the expert and will have the academic references or whatever, and I pick her brains all the time.”
Perry sought therapy after realising he was holding onto anger and trauma from an unhappy childhood that saw him retreating into an imaginary world presided over by his teddy Alan Measles. After starting to dress in women’s clothes from the age of 12, he escaped the conformity of his Essex upbringing to study art at Portsmouth Polytechnic then lived in a squat in 1980s London with Boy George and the milliner Stephen Jones.
Does he think his upbringing made him super aware of the issues of identity and masculinity at a young age?
“Probably unconsciously. I was a sensitive kid I imagine, but I had zero awareness. But I think being erotically drawn to dressing up in women’s clothes certainly makes you pay attention to gendered behaviour.”
Perry was making mainly sculpture when he almost fell into ceramics after going along to a pottery evening class with a friend.
“I’d done little bits of ceramics at college but in a very unsatisfying way, then my girlfriend’s sister, who was a trained potter and wanted to keep her hand at evening classes, said ‘they’re practically free’, so I went along and got into it.
“I realised very quickly that it had mileage because when I said to my art friends ‘oh I’m doing a bit of pottery’ they always used to go ‘pottery!?’ and I thought god, this is the art world where you’re meant to be able to do anything, and my antenna started twitching. I sensed there was a lot of fun to be had in being mildly unsettling in a middle class suburban way.”
Such as his first plate, made in the class in 1983, ‘Kinky Sex’?
“I think that’s what pottery does. The art world can cope with things that are way outside its remit, but anything that’s like their slightly pretentious next door neighbour, they’re a bit uncomfortable with. I’ve always been fascinated by the insecurities of the well-educated middle classes,” he says.
So something that’s a bit too close to home, sitting on the sideboard, masquerading as something waiting to be used to serve up a scone is ideal.
“Yeah, I mean I was quite blatant and crude when I started ‘cos I was 22 and angry and full on and mischievous and having a lot of fun in life. I almost got chucked out of the classes, but god bless her, my teacher stood up for me and told the head of college that I should stay because I was a hard worker.”
With a working class Essex work ethic and creativity and talent to match, Perry’s career progressed and he branched out into writing books and presenting TV shows. What does he get from each of those activities that he enjoys?
“Opportunities for learning, intellectual projects. I’m writing a musical at the moment so I’m learning a lot about them and I’ve learned to sing. I just love learning things, it’s really good fun and it opens up a new experience, so I have a go at anything I’m drawn to. I think the learning process is often the best bit, because you get those lovely revelations. I love being an ignoramus and saying OK, how do you write a musical, let’s start.”
What’s his musical about?
He points at himself and laughs.
“Grayson Perry The Musical’ is the working title. It wasn’t my idea. The composer had the idea. We’re well on the way. We’ve been doing it over three years now.”
Perry isn’t going to be singing in the musical, but he does in his touring show, About Grayson Perry: A Show All About You that will visit Scotland in November. The blurb for it says ‘Grayson Perry, white, male, heterosexual, able bodied, English, southerner, baby boomer and member of the establishment takes a mischievous look at the nature of identity in his new show that will make you laugh, shudder, and reassess who you really are.’
“It’s a touring comedy lecture-come stage show all about identity, so I’m working on that at the moment. The Scottish audience is such a good audience and I had such a laugh in Glasgow last time I toured I thought I’d do more. I’m doing Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Perth. It’ll be fun.”
In the meantime Perry will be heading north for Smash Hits, the title of which is making me anxious - all those rooms full of pots and delicate objects.
He laughs, unconcerned, but has anybody ever smashed one of his works accidentally?“Yes, sure. A friend of mine, Louisa Buck [British art critic and contemporary art correspondent for The Art Newspaper] bought my work early on and her son was playing football in the front room and one got smashed so she got it glued together. The restorer said do you want me to cover the cracks or shall we leave it looking interesting, and she left it looking interesting with all the cracks filled in but still visible. It looks great.”
Perry has reached an audience far beyond the rarefied art world as his popular TV show Grayson’s Art Club demonstrated during lockdown, with viewers sending in scores of artworks made at home, the inclusive element benefitting both audience and presenter.
“I was really lucky because Art Club gave me something to do. It was all-absorbing for at least six months for each series, because I was busy making work for it. Also I’ve got a studio and a nice house and went out on my bicycle during the pandemic and wasn’t affected like a lot of people. It was very hard for some because of economic or medical issues, bereavements and things. It was a very strange time to live through.”
With a hit TV show and art people want to collect, what does he think are the reasons for his popularity?
“I think it’s a combination of things that I embrace. I’m a good communicator and I think I have a very English scepticism which is shared by a lot of people. The basic position that is adopted by the people is ‘come off it’.
“And I lead with my secrets. I’m not pretending to be anything but at the same time I’m sophisticated in the way that I talk about things that everybody experiences. I try to say ‘we’re all like this, but have you thought about it?’”
Something as ubiquitous as owning a teddy bear we can all identify with but Perry has elevated Alan Measles to totemic status. Described by Perry as ‘surrogate father, metaphor for God… and the benign dictator of my childhood’ Alan has appeared in bronze, ceramics, in tapestry and is a recurring motif throughout his work.
And how is Alan Measles, because in a jar Perry made for Fancy Week at the Science Museum last year he was depicted slumped against a wall in a motorway underpass next to Perry’s alter ego, Claire, who was ill, neither of them faring well during Covid.
“Ha ha ha ha ha. They’re fine,” he says. “They feature in a new vase specially made for the show in Edinburgh called Alan Measles and Claire Under an English Moon.”
That’s good to hear.
“On that one he’s being knighted,” he says.
“Yeah,” he says of his investiture at Windsor Castle last month after he was recognised in the New Year Honours list for services to the arts, adding to the CBE he received from Prince Charles in 2014 dressed as Claire in an ‘italian mother of the bride’ dress of midnight blue and a black wide-brimmed hat, the first person to do so as a crossdresser.
This time round he attended in an outfit he designed himself, taking King Charles’ Coronation as inspiration, thinking Carolingian and looking to Stuart period portraits of women, majoring on big sleeves and dropped shoulders.
“I don’t do suits, but make the effort,” says ‘Sir G’ matter-of-fact about his appearance which took transvestism right to the heart of the establishment and no-one appeared to bat an eyelid, least of all Prince William whom Perry later described as ‘fun’.
Does he think people are more relaxed about cross-dressing these days?
“Curiously less relaxed now than a few years ago because of all the hoo-ha, I’d say. Things were kind of just perfect and now it’s all become a little bit more edgy again. It’s the politicisation of it,” he says.
“I’ve never really had any problems - I mean you get the odd idiot but they’re very rare. It’s because all situations are co-created. You go into a situation and if you go ‘oh my god I’m doing something wrong and everyone’s going to attack me’, you know what, they might do that, because criminals know who’s a good victim. I think if you act like you’re doing something wrong then people will assume you’re doing something wrong. If you don’t give a shit, everybody goes ‘oh hi Gray, nice frock’. That was always my attitude. The more confidently I go about the world, the less hassle I get.”
For Perry couching his criticism of the status quo with humour is also part of his belief that fun is a fundamental part of life.
“Yeah, humour is incredibly important. You know, the comedy never wins the Oscar and I think there’s a bias in culture against humour. There is a terrible humour lack in some sections of, particularly the online community, that doesn’t translate well. The opposite of serious is trivial, not humorous, and I think fun is a hugely profound part of being human. We choose our friends and our partners because they make us laugh and it’s never celebrated enough in culture. I don’t know why. In fact my favourite artists are comedians,” he says.
“Ooooh. I love… I think Harry Hill is great. I love Vic and Bob. and Munya Chawawa who does a really good Nigella. And I watched a recording of Have I Got News For You the other day and Clive Myrie the newsreader is really funny.”
Yes, and that got him into trouble…
“Yeah, good!” he exclaims, blond bob fizzing and cherry red nails flashing as he throws up his hands.
“That’s what you’ve got to do - get into a little bit of trouble. Ha ha ha ha ha.”
Grayson Perry Smash Hits, National Galleries Scotland (Royal Scottish Academy), 22 July - Sunday 12 Nov 2023, Open daily, 10am–5pm, £19–£5 | Friends go free
About Grayson Perry: A Show All About You: 9 November, Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle upon Tyne; 10 November, Perth Concert Hall, 7pm; 11 November, The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7.30-9.30pm; 12 November Music Hall, Aberdeen, 7.30pm
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