Defying the norm: An interview with Grayson Perry on what it means to be an artist
What is it about the British artist that allows him to connect with people across the board? We chat with Perry about public personas and how he built his “one-man culture”.
When I arrive at Grayson Perry’s somewhat hidden-in-plain-sight Islington studio (pre-restrictions), I’m met by a slightly worse-for-wear Perry; he’s had a few too many the night before and has a sore throat. He’s wearing a T-shirt and on it is printed a Mail Online headline: “I blame alcohol and kebabs.” It’s a conservatory-style building with a glass roof and we settle down – him on a sofa, me on a director’s chair covered in his illustrations; a tapestry above both our heads – to chat the changing art world, Alan Measles, semi-pro mountain biking, therapy and public “popularity”.
In case Perry CBE RA is new to you, here’s the low-down. Originally from Chelmsford, Perry graduated from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 before toiling away at his practice for years, largely out of the public eye. A Turner Prize win in 2003 catapulted him onto the international stage and, frankly, he’s not stopped since.
In the intervening years, Perry has exhibited work – often based within ceramics and pottery but certainly not confined to those media – across the globe, released series after series of compelling documentaries on Channel 4 (many of which have earned him BAFTAs), become chancellor of UAL, delivered Reith Lectures, written books, curated exhibitions – the list goes on.
Through all of these projects, Perry has continued to explore autobiographical stories and universal themes of identity, culture, gender, class, sexuality and religion, all with a wry tone that challenges the liberal elite and pokes fun at the traditional art world, while resonating with far wider audiences. Of all the names in the contemporary art scene, he is perhaps most familiar to those who don’t seek out art. Through a decades-long cultivated persona, he connects with people, making them rethink notions they thought they understood and, perhaps most notably, making them laugh.
Last summer, alongside his wife Phillipa Perry, he brought creativity into Britain’s homes during lockdown with his TV series Grayson’s Art Club, making new works and hosting masterclasses as well as collaborating with other artists and comedians. A raving success, the show’s second series began on Channel 4 last Friday and will continue for six weeks until 2 May.
It’s Nice That: You began 2020 with The Pre-Therapy Years, a crowd-sourced exhibition of your work made between 1982 and 1994. What did you learn through that process?
Grayson Perry: I’m much more kind to my work now than I used to be.
INT: You didn’t cringe, then, like most of us do when looking back at old work?
GP: No, not at all! It was a curated selection of what we could get hold of, the best ones. And also, in the tone of it, the subjects, it’s not much more different from what I do now. I just didn’t have the skills and the confidence and the clarity, perhaps, that I have now.
INT: Or the audience?
GP: No, it’s true, for sure. If somebody actually came into the gallery back in the day, I’d be pretty pleased with myself. That was one of the reasons I put a lot of words on the pots, to make people stand there for a long time!
Grayson Perry: We Shall Catch it on the Beaches (Copyright © Grayson Perry, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro)
Grayson Perry: Protective Spirit Alan (Copyright © Grayson Perry, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro)
“I have to confound them by making a Vote Tory pot, just to keep them on their toes.”Grayson Perry
INT: It’s interesting you mention those similarities, though. Is there one thing you’ve noticed that has remained the same in your output over the years?
GP: Teasing and biting the hand that feeds you. That was there right at the beginning. And playing with people’s assumptions about the work, which were different then of course. Back then, the assumptions were about pottery and craftiness and now the assumptions are, “Oh, what’s Grayson Perry done?” So now I have to confound them by making a Vote Tory pot, just to keep them on their toes
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Grayson’s Art Club: Annabelle Tim Hobgen: Led a merry dance (© The Artist)
INT: Was that something that drew you to pottery and ceramics in the first place – that people had preconceived ideas of it?
GP: I wouldn’t say I was necessarily drawn to it. It was a fairly happenstance thing. I’d made a few clay things at college but nothing very serious. It was just that my friend dragged me along to evening classes and I got into it. I realised that I could make stuff – you know, I was broke and it was just before Christmas! So there was an element of pure pragmatism there but what I liked about it as a vehicle for sharing relatively challenging ideas and images was that the pot always remains this stable thing that everybody understands. So you can really push the boat out but it’s still a pot. It was like, I know what that is and that was an anchor for all the other stuff I wanted to put on there.
INT: There’s familiarity with that form.
GP: It’s very useful – that familiarity.
INT: On the subject of looking back, a lot of your work does reflect on your upbringing or take into account how it impacted you. A big part of that is Alan Measles, who I love. At what point did he take on this more muse, God-like status for you?
GP: While I was in therapy, he came up a lot because he was such a powerful, what they call transference object or transitional object, I forget what the phrase is. That started to imbue him with this glowing significance and then shortly after I finished therapy, I had an exhibition in Japan which I called My Civilisation because I liked this idea that I’m a one-man culture. Which we all are, of course! So I thought, I need a God, all cultures have a belief system and I thought, within a second, of course, it’s Alan. So I started making work about Alan as God and it’s a metaphor that has reaped rewards. Now he’s in the public consciousness, I can play with that, which is lovely. He’s the perfect metaphor for God being something you grow up with and project onto.
INT: He’s something you’re not even aware of knowing.
GP: He’s hegemonic.
INT: There weren’t many books or much music in your house growing up. Do you know where your creative interests came from?
GP: It came from that old-fashioned idea of liking making things. I used to say to students I’m not interested in people who want to be artists, I’m interested in people who want to make art. I don’t like the idea that there’s a role out there already made for you. No, the role you end up with comes from the things you want to make; that’s how you find your place in the world. There isn’t a predetermined hole in the world out there for you as “an artist”, you have to make the world fit around you.
“I’m not interested in people who want to be artists, I’m interested in people who want to make art.”Grayson Perry
INT: Was there a class or a teacher you particularly remember liking?
GP: My art teacher at school caught me at the perfect moment when I was losing interest in joining the army, which was what I had wanted to do. It’s a feeling I’ve had many times – often we’re driving for something out there when in fact the answer was behind us all along. The minute he said, “You’d do well at art school” it was like “Oh yeah, that IS what I like doing!” I’d never thought of it before then. In my family, the idea of being an artist was just so out-there, it was something I just never considered before.
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Grayson’s Art Club: Clare Warde (© The Artist)
INT: Good job they caught you when they did! Do you think that’s had any bearing on why you’re so interested and invested in arts education?
GP: I’m interested in social mobility and accessibility in the arts. But on the counter to that, I’m also keeping a watchful eye on the pretensions and gatekeeping going on in the art world as well. So I’m trying to negotiate between those two forces, I think that’s what it is – I see art as this “cool” thing and then also I want it to be accessible in a realistic way. It’s not a mystery and sometimes it’s held up. It’s got a very odd culture surrounding it.
“I see art as this ‘cool’ thing and I want it to be accessible in a realistic way. It’s not a mystery and sometimes it’s held up. It’s got a very odd culture surrounding it.”Grayson Perry
INT: On the subject of students, you do a lot of work at Central Saint Martins and other universities. I imagine a lot of students come to you for advice, especially because you didn’t make a living from art until quite late in your career. What do you tell them?
GP: I can only teach people to be like me, I’m not a professional art tutor and it’s also a very different art world from when I was coming up. It’s a strange one – you had room for growth when I was coming up and I think now, it’s the opposite, it’s contracting.
INT: Do you think it’s easier for people to get their work noticed, though? For example, I imagine if you studied at art school in 2020, a big part of your practice would have been having an Instagram account to put your work out there.
GP: It’s very different now isn’t it, because that whole Instagram thing has a different tone. I think it’s great that people can put things out there but the tone isn’t right – the minute you say IG, Insta, etc, I deflate slightly.
INT: It often seems like it’s an extension of someone’s practice now.
GP: That’s great that there are people using it in that way but there was something about the blessed ignorance when I was younger. I can remember, quite a long time ago now, when the internet was first really taking off, a student came up to me and asked how I decide what to make work about. And I said, well I didn’t have one of those, pointing at her iPhone. You’ve got every image in the world in your hand, I had a tiny library and three television channels! So we made choices much more easily because the choices were limited, it forced you to get on and make your own. There’s something about the bewildering choice and the fact is that, if you have an idea now, you can Google it and someone’s done it already.
It’s like the old thing I often quote – Arno Minkkinen’s bus stations in Helsinki theory. The fact that your originality isn’t one year down the line, it’s ten years down the line. People think they want to be this instantly famous, successful, fully formed artist the minute they leave art school. And I want to tell them that’s not how it works! You’re lucky if that happens. And it can happen. In reality, though, you often have to keep your practice going and that’s how you find your voice.
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Grayson’s Art Club: The Singh Twins: NHS v Covid Fighting on Two Fronts (Copyright © The Singh Twins)
“People think they want to be this instantly famous, successful, fully formed artist the minute they leave art school. And I want to tell them that’s not how it works!”Grayson Perry
INT: Something I love about your work is that there are constant juxtapositions at play and it seems like that spills into your life too. For example, you’re really into your cycling?
GP: Yeah! I’m passionate about it. I cycle to work and go mountain biking out in Epping Forest. I can be out on the dirt in 25 minutes from here.
INT: And you did that semi-professionally for a while, right?
GP: I rode for a shop team for a while. I never made any money out of it but I was very serious about it. I did mountain-bike racing for 12 years and for several of those I was very very keen and obsessed.
I remember going to a mountain-bike race the night I was nominated for the Turner Prize and I had to keep it a secret. It was quite a muddy race, I remember, out where the Olympic Park is now and I was going around with mud splattering in my face, smiling, singing “I’m nominated for the Turner Prize” in my head haha!
INT: That’s amazing! So much of your work is about identity and that’s a massive backlash to the idea of “an artist” because so often people don’t associate art or artists with sport.
GP: That was one of the attractions for me, actually. Artists aren’t meant to be competitive (although they are, of course) but I love the naked competitiveness of cycling as a sport because you pass someone and it’s like, eat my dirt! That’s a nice feeling. There’s clarity.
INT: You’re very open about your experiences with therapy. Can you tell the difference between the work you made pre- and post-therapy?
GP: Most of the early work is quite raw aesthetically and not so ambitious in terms of how long it would have taken to make. The same sort of themes are floating about but I suppose I was younger, rawer, clumsier in my bids for attention.
INT: Was there ever a worry that going through therapy would quash some of your creativity?
GP: I think a lot of creative people are suspicious of therapy because of that; because they think their quirks are their creativity. Which is a huge mistake. I always describe it as someone coming to clean your tool shed – they don’t throw the tools out, they throw the shit out – and you can find the tools easier afterwards! So for me, therapy was incredibly useful. It wasn’t just about sorting out my emotional health but also it gave me a subject and a view of the world, almost as a philosophy, a clarity of vision. A lot of people think therapy is a woolly, spiritual experience. I would say it’s the opposite – it’s the most bullshit-free zone I’ve ever encountered.
INT: Is that with the power of hindsight? Were you worried beforehand?
GP: Oh yeah! When I did the book Cycle of Violence, I was very suspicious of therapy. There’s this thread running through it that is quite satirical about the nature of therapy. My wife was just starting to train at that point so I was very familiar with the jargon. But I very quickly was converted.
INT: Has being married to a psychotherapist impacted your work?
GP: It’s very useful having an expert on-hand. It’s useful being married to a car mechanic too, I imagine.
INT: This is true.
A massive part of your career has been on-screen, particularly through TV documentaries, most recently your Big American Roadtrip and Grayson’s Art Club. They’ve obviously been a catalyst for solidifying your public image because it does seem like everyone and anyone knows of or is a fan of your work, to a certain extent. It could be a cab driver or someone’s mum.
GP: I’m sure there are lots of people who aren’t fans! But they definitely have massive audiences. I was saying to the commissioning editor of a documentary once that an exhibition had gone really well because it had had 120,000 people through the door. And she said, “I’d get the sack if those were my viewing figures.”
INT: Is it the lowbrow associations of TV that interest you?
GP: Yeah although telly isn’t lowbrow anymore! With Netflix, boxsets etc, I think television is where culture is happening now. That’s such an old-fashioned idea. Television is the literature of our age. Books, yeah they’re great, but the real super-sophisticated, clever, moving storytelling is happening in television.
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Grayson’s Art Club: Martin Parr: Sainsbury's queue during the coronavirus outbreak, Clifton Down, Bristol, England, 2020 (Copyright © Martin Parr and Magnum Photos)
INT: After you won the Turner Prize, there was a lot of chat about whether it’s possible to be a likeable person, to have this persona, and also be a serious artist. Why can’t you be both?
GP: That’s exactly what I said! I think that showed an awful lot about the questioner rather than me. It’s the same attitude to humour, people think it’s light entertainment but I think it’s one of the most profound aspects of being alive. There’s this idea that you can’t have fun in an art gallery, that complication and depth is all chin-stroking, teenage poetry stuff. It’s not at all like that! You can have a laugh and still be deeply profound.
“There’s this idea that you can’t have fun in an art gallery, that complication and depth is all chin-stroking, teenage poetry stuff. It’s not at all like that! You can have a laugh and still be deeply profound.”Grayson Perry
INT: Why do you think your work draws such a diverse audience? Is it because there’s some universality to your themes?
GP: It’s more to do with the tone of my work, the way I communicate. I don’t obfuscate and I’m aware of the fact that a lot of people don’t go to art galleries. That often their idea of art is television, pop music, films, fashion. It’s that tone of language that they want to see, that they want to understand. There’s over-privileging of the academic in the art world, you know, it’s given too much kudos. Of course, it’s a necessary part but I think the art world is very slow to acknowledge a more popular, sensuous, funny, entertaining version of what art could be.
Chris Miller, from Submit to Love Studios: Grayson and his motorbike
Headway is a charity that promotes understanding of all aspects of brain injury and provides information, support and services to survivors, their families and carers. In addition, Headway campaigns to reduce the incidence of brain injury.
The illustrations in this article were created by members of Submit to Love, Headway East London’s collective of artists who have survived brain injuries. In the spirit of Grayson’s Art Club, each artist has created their interpretation of Perry.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.