“I have learned compassion for that spikier, raw, energetic young man.” Grayson Perry reflects on the evolution of his art and alter-ego, Claire.
This new book offers an unprecedented look at your early ceramics of the 1980s and early 1990s. What has it been like to become reacquainted with your younger self and work?
It’s been an uplifting, therapeutic exercise. I was a different person then who was much harder on himself. In the intervening years, I have learned to have compassion for that spikier, raw, energetic young man. The most surprising thing is how much of what I think of as my ‘style’ or tone is already present, right from the earliest pieces.
You’ve spoken before of “the friendship of pots in our homes.” Yet much of this early work uses this domestic form to express crude and violent subject matter. Tell us a bit more about this collision between genteel tradition and transgression?
I love pots because they are universal. Pots have been made, used and decorated by nearly all cultures from the dawn of civilization. They have adorned the crudest hut and the most fabulous palaces. Pottery is a language that pretty well everyone can understand; no one is going to come into an exhibition of mine and go “what is that?” I depend on this familiarity and comfort with ceramics to relax the viewer. If I made videos or photographs using some of the imagery that I used in these early pieces, I think I would have had more aggro. My pots never felt dangerous even when I was depicting subjects and using symbols that would get me cancelled these days.
The book is titled The Pre-Therapy Years. What were the most important learnings in your therapeutic journey – and did art and making have a part in the process?
Psychotherapy has been the experience that has most influenced my subsequent work. I saw the world, particularly the social world, in a fresh clear way. I developed my ‘psychological mindedness’, in that I can, to a certain extent, watch myself feeling and thinking and reflect on my processes. I am much more aware of the effect people and the world have on my emotional state. Therapy made my work clearer and curiously, after a furious burst of autobiographical works, I started to look outwards more. After 2005, I made more work about wider culture, society and politics.
What about the emergence of your alter-ego Claire? This early work contains a lot of gender and sexual politics, but transvestism didn’t play such a role in your public persona?
Claire was a different apparition in those days. I still conformed to the transvestite orthodoxy which said ‘if you like putting on dresses than you want to pass as a real woman.’ I dressed as a suburban housewife or office worker. Claire was also mainly a private phenomenon; she was not the performative, attention-seeking, society character she is now. I was obsessed by all aspects of kinky sex and fetishism so those things feature heavily in my early work, but Claire herself was more shy. Therapy helped me come to terms with being a transvestite and not to hide it away.
There seems to me a search for understanding in these early ceramics that perhaps finds resolution in your later work on the multiplicity of identity, whether in Claire’s different expressions or in works like Brain Map. Yet today as the “Transvestite Potter”, you also have the neat narrative that comes with being a household name. How do you reconcile a multi-faceted self with your instantly-recognizable brand?
I like having a distinctive, easily understood brand as the Transvestite potter. It gives me a platform to explore and communicate from. I am constantly trying new avenues and techniques but having that public identity means I can take a large audience with me whether it is through art, TV, books or stage shows. One of my core missions is to communicate the complexity, nuance, compromise that is essential for human happiness. Certainty, polarisation, puritanism, perfection are all corrosive and toxic. I try to pass on the revelations, the thoughts and feelings that excite and comfort me, to my audience.
Interview by Eliza Apperly