If Grayson Perry didn’t exist, you would have to invent him. Although if you did, people would think you had gone too far. A motorbike-riding transvestite potter from Essex with a superstar name and a psychotherapist for a wife (they have one daughter), he is as at home in leathers as he is in frilly dresses.
Perry seems like an impossibility. That he is able to explain his position in perfectly rational terms while sporting a cape festooned with flying penises and wearing a pair of size 10 Mary Jane shoes, makes everything all the more head-spinning.
The joy about Perry, 51, who’s currently curating an exhibition in the British Museum, is that he is probably the most articulate contender in the art world’s Premier League. This is also a problem, not least because he makes everything seem so, well, explainable.
Are you interested in shocking people, I ask him. “I like delighting people,” he tells me. What is your view of creativity? “Creativity feels like mistakes. The unfamiliar quite often looks like a mistake.”
How about being a transvestite? “One fact that every transvestite has to come to terms with is that a person dressed up in the clothes of the opposite sex is somehow inherently funny. I regard humour as an important and necessary aspect of art.”
He’s also pretty rude about the world that shot him to fame. “I have a pot,” he tells an audience at the British Museum, “called Boring Cool People. It’s decorated with pictures of the sort of people who go to ‘contemporary art galleries’,” he says dismissively. The crowd giggles. Artists who have won the Turner Prize don’t normally bite the institution that has made them famous.
Perry, who has already got the crowd on his side by arriving in full make-up, a cape and Tudor-style knickerbockers (revealing rather good legs), carries on. “I get most of my ideas when I am sitting in front of the telly with a beer, watching X Factor.” Again, laughter. This is not how contemporary artists are meant to behave.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, he turns down the intellectualisation a touch and becomes relentlessly chatty. “I love a good shrine,” begins one chapter.
It’s just as well he is married to a psychotherapist, Philippa Fairclough. A shrink could probably write a PhD on his childhood alone. He admits his early years were lonely and, at times, unhappy. Much of the British Museum show is devoted to the iconography of his 50-year-old teddy bear, Alan Measles. Perry admits Alan Measles is the only thing he now has from his childhood days. No photos. No books, no pictures, no other toys.
In the moving and often hilarious Imagine… film that accompanies the British Museum show, Perry talks about Alan Measles, whose roles included “surrogate father, rebel leader, fighter pilot and undefeated racing driver”, with sad brightness. As a boy, it seems as if Alan was the only comforting factor in his life.
When Perry was five, his parents divorced. His father had discovered his mother having an affair (in true Benny Hill style, it was with the milkman, whom she subsequently married). He has not seen his father since. Yet his British Museum exhibition is called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, and is dedicated to him.
Mr Perry was, it seems, “the original craftsman”; a man adored by his son as a chap who could rewire a television, plaster a wall and ride a motorbike in the same day. As much as Grayson revered him, he disliked his replacement.
To escape his hated stepfather, he spent hours on his own, fighting imaginary German armies with Alan Measles. The forlorn little bear, now tattered and torn almost beyond redemption, is so precious to Perry that he won’t allow him to be exhibited in the show. Instead he has created many ceramic and metal versions of his teddy bear, and has a “stunt double” sitting on a customised motorbike.
Although he is a member of the Royal Academy and a past winner of the Turner Prize, Perry clearly relishes his self-styled role of insider aggravator. “The art world is not engaged with the real world,” he tells me. “There is no popular wing to it. Who are the popular artists these days? Banksy. Jack Vettriano. Beryl Cook. You won’t find them hanging in the Tate. Almost because of the fact they are pop stars.”
He will be gratified to know that his show, in which his giant tapestries, ceramics and the motorbike are exhibited alongside a hundred or so objects from the museum’s permanent collection, is pulling in what might be seen as a hefty slice from “the real world”.
When I went around, it was teeming with teenage girls, elderly women, dads pushing buggies and intrigued tourists. In a sense, Perry’s arch intellectualism and defiant reliance on beauty and craft are a much-needed shot across the bows of the art world. In Perry’s world, you don’t have to exhibit a “concept” in order to seem relevant. You can do it with a tapestry, a pot or a satin cape.
This is work that requires a high level of skill. “What binds my work together is that it is quite high craft media. I don’t do, say, an arrangement of cardboard boxes or an art video,” he says. “I do things that have man hours in them.” That’s very in keeping with the Make Do and Mend zeitgeist, I tell him. “Yeah,” grins Perry, “I am the poster boy of the handmade.”
I think it is this that makes him seem so approachable. We may never have made an arty video or put a shark in formaldehyde, but everyone has, at some point in their life, made a clay pot, knitted a scarf or sewn a bookmark. I tell him he is a very human artist. It’s an idiotic thing to say, but Perry seems to know what I am grasping at.
“Ha ha ha,” he laughs, in a slightly alarming cackle. “It was lucky I had done a lot of work on myself before it all hit. I came to fame late in my career, and I have done a lot of therapy. That helps. It makes you aware of who you are, and what effect you have on people.” Do people confide in you, I ask. “Yes, they do.” I can believe it. I suspect there is not much that shocks Perry.
All right, so what about the cross-dressing shtick? Does he do it for effect? It certainly gets the headlines. “I do it because I want to do it. I don’t have an agenda with it. It might come with an agenda for other people, but not for me. I like dressing up,” he says, simply. “I am a tranny.”
Does the tranny world like him? It seems they are (probably quite rightly) a little wary. “I’m not the right sort of tranny for them. I am an artist, so I don’t stop being an artist when I dress up.”
Is Perry’s whole approach some elaborate joke? Are we all being taken in by Perry, who seems to enjoy taunting the art world while wearing a girl’s blouse? I don’t think so.
He has reached into his imaginary world, and into the vast and all-embracing collection of the British Museum in order to make us look again, and think again about why it is, and what it is, that human beings create. He also makes people laugh, which is a very underrated but important element in art.
Imagine: Grayson Perry and the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is on BBC1 tonight at 10:35pm