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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

“Perversion to match the curtains”? Grayson Perry’s tranny aesthetic

Margaret GILLESPIE

Résumés

Lauréat du prestigieux Turner Prize en 2003, Grayson Perry, Commandant de l’Empire Britannique (CBE), est un artiste multimédia contemporain ainsi qu’un critique culturel de renom. Marié et père d’une fille, Perry est également travesti déclaré tout aussi célèbre pour ses apparitions sous l’identité de Claire, son alter-égo féminin. Il s’agira ici d’évaluer la place du travestissement dans l’œuvre de l’artiste à l’aune de son ancrage de plus en plus affirmé au sein de « l’Establishment » culturel. Nous nous efforcerons de démontrer la centralité du brouillage des genres dans la pratique esthétique de Perry, en particulier dans son travail de céramiste et ses apparitions en public en travesti. Ce prisme nous permettra de mieux saisir le statut ambigu, voire incongru, de l’artiste, dont l’œuvre vacille entre le subversif et le convenu : « la perversité assortie aux rideaux » selon sa propre expression.

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1“Perversion to match the curtains” (“Grayson Perry”, Saatchi Gallery, online) is how the British artist Grayson Perry (1960—) has described his signature ornamental vases —or “pots” as he bathetically terms them—that won him the prestigious Turner Prize in 2003. Both familiar and aesthetically pleasing in shape and palette, the images they feature are nevertheless a far cry from the decorous motifs with which such artefacts are traditionally graced. Prim flora and fauna give way to more unsettling images – orgies, working-class iconography and obscenities that make mock of the respectability this domestic vessel habitually encodes.

2One such vase, dating from 1995 and whose title, I saw this vase and thought it beautiful and then I looked at it is a direct quote from one of Perry’s wife’s aunts, illustrates precisely how the expectations a naïve viewer might bring are confounded and thwarted. Meaning is suspended in awkward antagonism, as the seeming pedigree of what the artist calls their “classical invisible” (“Grayson Perry”, Ceramics Now online) form invites an orthodox interpretation, which is challenged and frustrated by the content of the message inscribed on the vase. Like many of his pots, this particular example presents Chinoiserie clichés and a tasteful muted colour scheme, the very epitome of a middle-class would-be drawing room aesthetic. It is adorned with quaint, blue “Victoriana” portraits but around them are violent images and aggressive expletives like “wanker”, “queer”, “slag” and “spastic” that undercut the work’s ostensible parlour propriety. A gilt-framed vignette featuring a photograph of the artist in drag adds further insult to injury, reminding the viewer that form may well belie content.

  • 1 Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! showed at the Serpentine Galleries in London i (...)

3The expression “perversion to match the curtains” may also be interpreted as something of a self-portrait—both an allusion to Perry’s “lower Middle” Essex background (a world of safely colour-coordinated “matching” domestic interiors) and a reference to his much publicized penchant for transvestism & SM practices. With this apparent dissonance– philistine suburbia meets kinky sex and gender dysphoria—Perry seems to place himself beyond the bounds of the Establishment as a class and sexual marginal. However, in recent years that outsider image seems challenged in the light of the artist’s own increasingly prominent position within the cultural mainstream, as honorary titles, national exhibitions, including the self-mockingly entitled The Greatest Art Exhibition Ever!1 and a consolidated television and radio presence have brought him fame and fortune and made him a household name.

4With typical “gender-bending” self-deprecation Perry has compared his success story to a 1980s Babycham commercial, in which a woman’s ostensibly embarrassing taste for the “really naff drink” suddenly gains validation when a fashionable man orders the same thing: “I’m the girl going in asking” explains Perry, while the “cool dude” is the contemporary art world (Cork 198). The desire to challenge the boundaries of high and low art, of tasteful and tasteless, of intellectual and popular, is a key trope in his work. Perry gleefully embraces “naffness” as a “strong force in [his] creativity” (Portrait 136): much of his early work is created in what he terms the “wilfully conservative” medium of pottery (Playing 81), with its conventional form and “scandalously unfashionable” middlebrow associations with decoration, domesticity and craft (Klein 9). But what Perry terms his “suburban” move —“making pots and calling it art”, defiant precisely in its refusal to be radically innovative—, has been embraced by the art world, the media and the British public; as a concentrated embodiment of Britishness he seems to be well on the way to being transformed into a “cuddly” “national treasure” by the British media (Jardine).

  • 2 The exhibition Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk showed at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate (...)

5Undeniably, much of Perry’s output, particularly pre-Turner prize fame, is packed with explicit, often violent, imagery where cross-dressing figures and particularly Claire, his sometime alter ego, have pride of place. But can it really be said that his more recent work remains so discomfiting? Has the apparently irresolvable tension between banal suburbia and pervy eccentricity actually come full circle to become “provincial punk” as the curators of a recent retrospective of his work2 would have it? How subversive, really, is perversion and what status therefore should be accorded the role of cross-dressing in the artistic process and the artist’s performances? As Molly Anne Rothernberg and Dennis Foster have argued, the perverse, a haunting trace of the pre-Oedipal in normative behaviour, constitutes one of the foundations of “the meaningful activities of social life” (Rothernberg, Foster, Zizek, 3). In his now-classic study, psychoanalyst Robert J. Stoller for his part reads perversion as a “necessity”, the buttress of the family unit which acts “as a repository of conservatism to stabilize otherwise explosive forces” channelling them into “calmer currents” such as “art, pornography and daydreams” (Stoller 215, 218 my emphasis).

  • 3 Strangely familiar (2000) is also the title of one of Perry’s vases, which the artist describes as (...)

6Viewed in this light, the apparently oxymoronic “perversion to match the curtains” appears rather more than the simple opposition, or posture of provocation, it initially appears to be. In the manner of the Freudian unheimlich, both strange and yet also familiar,3 Perry’s transvestism and his art—a combination of “dumpy frumpy housewife” and “porno fantasist” in the words of art historian Richard Cork (202)—occupy a space of instability, both homely and unsettling, both blending and jarring with conventional, platitudinous Britishness. More broadly, in his very practice of contrasting the medium and the subject of art, his blurring the boundaries of gender and genre, his challenging of the decorous criteria of tastefulness, his chameleon-like mutability, could it not be argued that Perry has become very much an artist emblematic of his age, rather than an “imposter” as he himself has maintained (Croft 198)? In an attempt to investigate some of these questions, the following paper will start by briefly contextualising Perry’s work within the current trends of contemporary art and art institutions, before focusing specifically on the artist’s “tranny” aesthetic, which will be viewed as a trope of the “category crisis” or “failure of definitional distinction” (Garber, Vested Interests, 16) underpinning his artist output and performances.

1. Grayson Perry in context

1.1 “An artist who happens to use craft techniques” (Cork 200)

  • 4 Significantly, in the same 2009 interview with Richard Cork he also claims both to “always define [ (...)
  • 5 Lilley cites A Secret History of Clay: from Gauguin to Gormley (Tate Liverpool 2004); Return to Ear (...)
  • 6 “Exaspération à l’égard du culte du Nouveau.” My translation.

7On receiving the Turner Prize, Perry quipped, in a much quoted rejoinder, that it was a bigger deal that a potter had won the award than a transvestite (Jolly 120), a self-presentation that can be viewed as one of the artist’s many self-conscious personae: “there’s a quaint pair of half-timbered inverted commas around what I do, in that ‘I’m being a craftsman’” he says (Cork 201).4 Yet, as “an outspoken proponent for the vitality of ceramic art” (Lilley 13), Perry can be placed within a national and global trend which has seen a renaissance of the medium, as the boundaries between high art and craft have blurred, with clay becoming “increasingly central in contemporary art” (Elderton & Morill 9), a phenomenon consolidated in the exhibition space since the turn of the millennium5 (Lilley 15). More particularly, Weiwei’s Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola logo (1993), the sexually explicit lesbian imagery on Ghader Amer’s ceramic fragments (Entrelacement and Thinking Twice, both 2015), Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Michael Frimkess’s painted urns with comic strip citations (Pre-Columbian Pot, 1972) could all claim a certain affinity, if not affiliation, with Perry’s work in their exploitation of the dissonance between form and content. Yet despite the growing presence of ceramics in the art world, Perry still views pottery, “the next-door neighbour of art” (Grayson Perry in Confidence 10:34) as having a “little bit of an edge to it” (Cork 200) particularly when, from a formal point of view it is treated in a perversely conventional, non-radical way (Grayson Perry in Conversation 3:10). This clear rejection of the value of innovation places Perry in opposition to more conceptual ceramicists who have shunned “the medium’s traditional techniques” (Elderton & Morill 9), but firmly in phase with post-modernity’s “exasperation with the cult of the New” (Ardenne 1997, 29).6

1.2 Low is the new high

8The rediscovery of lowly, “down-to-earth” clay is just one example of what Arthur Danto has termed contemporary art’s “transfiguration of the commonplace” (Danto 1981), a phenomenon the philosopher traces back to Duchamp’s early twentieth-century ready-mades and Warhol’s 1960s homages to everyday consumer culture (Danto 2013, 24, 29). For art historian Paul Ardenne, a more recent, but no less important, instance of contemporary art’s love of the “banal” would be its embracing of kitsch—the popular art form that Clement Greenberg had once slated as the opposite of true art, i.e. “the debased […] simulacra of genuine culture” (Greenberg 10)—as a valid and even respectable source of inspiration (Ardenne 1997, 313). This breaking down of the barrier between high and low culture (to the extent that it is even ushering in non-culture) together with the end of metaphysical concepts like beauty has led, crucially, to a renunciation of the belief in art as important, even as artworks themselves have continued to gain in monetary value. It is a phenomenon that can be seen as part of a new “consensual model” that has emerged with the decline of modernity’s master narratives (Ardenne, 1997, 25, 313-315). Resonances of this can be found in Perry’s self-assessment in that he locates his own artistic activity within the realm of harmless, autotelic recreation: “I think life is meaningless. That’s comforting to me, it’s the only meaning we can give it. If I can dress up and have fun and make art, that gives a kind of mythological story” (Cork 203).

  • 7 “Aborder l’art, c’est aborder l’artiste.” My translation.
  • 8 “Jouer contre la banalisation.” My translation.

9Albeit no longer the counter-cultural agitator he or she once was, the contemporary artist, has, as Ardenne argues, actually gained in prominence: “engaging with art means engaging with the artist”7 (Ardenne 1997, 21). Increasingly complicit with the market place and with today’s ever-more powerful art institutions, artists have become stars in their own right, buttressed and promoted by a largely uncritical media and appropriated by state apparatuses (Ardenne 1997, 352, 361, 372). According to Ardenne this (show)-business model in its turn has led to a new attitude towards the general public, no longer the target of the artist’s shock tactics, but conversely courted for its approval (Ardenne 1997, 353). However, with this neo-liberal model comes the paradoxical challenge of competition: appealing to the masses requires both accessibility—and so a certain ordinariness—, but also the ability to stand out from the crowd and “go against trivialization”8 (Ardenne 2001, 225).

1.3 Perry, contemporary artist (extra)ordinaire

  • 9 The BBC's flagship annual lecture series delivered by “significant international thinkers” and broa (...)
  • 10 The BBC’s Culture Show, Newsnight Review and the satirical quiz programme Have I Got News for You.
  • 11 For instance, All in the Best Possible Taste (2012), a three-part series where Perry goes, as the o (...)

10In many ways Grayson Perry fits Ardenne’s template perfectly, so seamlessly does he appear to have entered the British cultural and media élite—he is in his own words “a fully paid-up member of the Establishment” (Playing 81)—, both as artist and performer, and state-sanctioned mouthpiece of the nation. Not only winner of the 2003 Turner Prize but also Commander of the Order of the British Empire and member of the Royal Academy, Perry became the first visual artist to deliver the BBC’s flagship Reith lectures9 in 2013. A media commentator on art, social class and gender, Perry is a now-familiar figure on British television screens, a frequent guest on magazine and alternative quiz programmes10 but also the maker of well-received socio-cultural documentaries.11 Pipping David Hockney to the post, Perry garnered the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Visual Art in recognition for a major 2012 exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, featuring thirty of his own works in dialogue with 200 cultural artefacts selected by him and spanning time and space. Summer 2018 sees him coordinate the 250th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition before the Monnaie de Paris offers him a first retrospective of his work in France the following autumn. On the strength of this and more he has been dubbed “the most articulate contender in the art world’s premier league” (Josie Millard in Klein 7); for Jacky Klein, author of a monograph on Perry he is “arguably the most popular British artist since Lucian Freud or David Hockney” (8). In the image of many other fellow white, heterosexual middle-class, middle-aged male members of the chattering classes, Grayson Perry is married and lives with a wife (therapist Philippa) and offspring (a daughter Flo), in North London. On the face of it at least then, Perry seems to have bought into the “patriarchal goals of marriage and reproduction” (Jolly 118).

11Perry’s appeal has soared the highest echelons of power. He is the favourite artist of former Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne, whose office was graced with Print for a Politician (2005), one of Perry’s etchings. The paperback version of Perry’s The Descent of Man (2017), a critique of masculinity, boasts cover and front pages duly adorned with critical acclaim from the quality press, praising the artist for his combination of insightful wit, and endearing eccentricity balanced with the requisite dose of self-deprecation. Indeed, avatar of these “tried and tested” stalwart qualities of Britishness, Perry seems to have been elected as mouthpiece for the nation and its currently beleaguered identity. For The Independent he is “One of the most amiable dissectors of our prejudices, fashions and foibles” (Cole); Clive Davis writing in The Times dubs Perry “engaging and charismatic, quirky and contrarian yet laced with a winning measure of self-doubt” (Davis); for Caitlin Moran, he is “so wonderfully unique that he single-handedly makes up for Brexit” (Descent of Man, back cover) while for The Daily Telegraph he quite simply “says the things we wish we had thought of, and asks the questions we want to ask” (Crompton).

2. Just “a man in a dress”?

2.1 “Dressing up and having fun”

12Perry thus functions as an effective go-between between the Establishment and the art world on the one hand and the cultural mainstream and the general public other. Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to Be Understood, a study springing from the Reith lectures, not only testifies to Perry’s on-going mission to debunk the contemporary art scene and render it accessible to the cultural mainstream, but also illustrates how successfully he can simultaneously embody an amalgam of potentially dissonant identities: humble origins, sexual proclivities and a training in “down-to-earth” craftsmanship are jointly offered as tongue-in-cheek shorthand for his now-feigned cultural philistinism:

It’s easy to feel insecure around art and its appreciation, as though we cannot enjoy certain artworks if we don’t have a lot of academic and historical knowledge. But if there’s one message that I want you take away, it’s that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me! For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia. (Playing to the Gallery 1)

  • 12 In her seminal reflection on the nature of femininity, Joan Rivière contended that womanliness is a (...)
  • 13 Marjorie Garber gives the following definition of pantomime: “as it evolved in the latter part of t (...)

13One of Britain’s most popular and accessible contemporary artists and cultural commentators, Perry, whose public appearances are now almost always given in full and ebullient drag, however heavyweight the subject being addressed, is quite possibly more famous for his flamboyant, outré outfits than he is for his multifaceted artistic and media output—an output which, in addition to his signature dresses and vases, includes engravings, tapestries, video, metal work and performances. This apparent paradox was keenly encapsulated in his 2013 Reith lectures, Playing to the Gallery, which he delivered from the Tate Modern in a psychedelic kaftan-style mini dress, bright blue tights and platform clogs. More recently, for the first Sheffield University Orwell Lecture on social empathy held in November 2017, the artist sported a Victorian-style cape over a lavender satin mini-dress with a pleated collar. By “dress[ing] up and hav[ing] fun” Perry effectively undercuts the gravitas commonly associated with the cultural establishment’s pronouncements on art and society. This “masquerading womanliness”, to borrow Joan Rivière’s formulation12, also enables him to project a droll, unthreatening image while speaking from a position of power and influence. In a 2012 open-to-the public interview session organised by The Guardian newspaper, Perry gave a breezy assessment of his transvestite persona that seemed to downplay any possibly subversive potential and place it benignly within an English pantomime13 slapstick tradition—at the core, then, rather than at the margins of a self-mocking national identity:

[…] typical thing is when you’re a trannie, I can only speak from my own experience […] you’re either a psycho killer (like in Psycho) or you are a comic character. It’s a tough choice, what are you going to be? Seedy sex maniac or like a drag queen, a funny character.

I’m English, and the defining characteristic of an English person is that you’re in a permanent state of social dis-ease […] therefore we use humour as our main weapon against that, it eases the situation, so I’m a typical English person and I’m a very English artist I think and so I use humour a lot, it’s part of life […] we make jokes all the time […] I’m just like anybody else.

  • 14 In their study of British cultural identity, for instance, Mike Stormy and Peter Childs discuss “th (...)

14Perry, “ageing trophy wife” as he said of a look worn to promote the 2017 exhibition of his costumes at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, often presents himself as the latest of a long and venerable national lineage of harmless eccentrics14 and self-appointed champion of low-brow Middle England. In so doing, the sexual ambiguity of transvestism is trivialized and channelled into creating a distinctive and effective marketing identity. Indeed, Perry’s signature “little girl” frocks, engrained in the public consciousness since he received the Turner prize sporting a pink Little Bo Peep dress, a bow in his hair and red patent baby doll pumps to top it all, have, at his own admission, turned into something of a brand (Klein 127): “it’s good for PR of course” he says (Cork 193).

2.2 Portrait of the artist

15Perry’s autobiography, co-authored with writer Wendy Jones and narrated in the first person, can also be (at least) partially read as a form of self-marketing. A Künstlerroman whose title, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl is a knowing, post-modern riff on the Joycean modernist literary classic, charts the twin trajectories of Perry’s emergence as artist and transvestite. Written in a chatty, accessible style—a Mail on Sunday review reproduced on the back cover describes it as “one of those heart-warming tales of happiness and success wrested from the jaws of potential disaster”—, it is in many ways what life-writing scholar Margareta Jolly has termed a “classic conversion narrative” (Jolly 124), celebrating the triumph of the cross-dressing self in the face of unfeeling and uncomprehending adversity (a neglectful mother and brutal stepfather), in a coherent, linear tale buttressed by epiphanies, turning points, closures and happy endings:

Now he tells his story […] Early childhood in Essex is a rural Eden that ends abruptly with the arrival of his stepfather, leading to constant swerving between parents’ houses and between boy’s and women’s clothes. But as Grayson enters art college and discovers the world of London squats and New Romanticism he starts to find himself. At last he steps out as a potter and transvestite. (Portrait, back cover)

16Yet the dubious authorial status of this autobiography undermines the apparently stable self-portrait. Co-written with Wendy Jones who wrote up and edited a series of Perry’s audio-taped recollections—as if the genuine Grayson could only emerge through a woman’s voice—it is a collaborative project, and one where the protagonist’s mutable identity is foregrounded, as Jones confides in her preface:

During the interviews, Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing. (3)

17Significantly there is yet another identity which graces the book jacket: Perry on a giant tricycle, wearing a little-girl puff-ball dress. This “unsettling” (Jolly 124), faux-naïve garb would seem in keeping with the artist’s assessment of his life as a fairy tale, a somewhat camp conceit, recounted by Jones in her introduction to the biography:

[…] I have often heard him say “My life is like a fairy tale” and it is: a lost parent, a step-parent, chores, banishment, apprenticeship, adventures, then eventually finding himself in a dress at a ball. (Portrait 3)

2.3 Perry and camp: the “triumph of the epicene”

18Perry’s privileging of costume and the decorative arts, together with the often-uneasy juxtaposition of high and low cultures, of past and contemporary styles, of the naïve and the knowing, the incongruous fêting of the mundane suggest a clear affiliation with camp. Indeed, there are resonances of Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 “Notes on Camp” in his work: “Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement”; “Clothes […] all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art”; “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style” (“Notes on Camp”, notes 34, 5, 11). Perry’s life and work belie a familiarity with the camp aesthetic, which may be considered as a metaphorical transposition of sexual indeterminacy—the “triumph of the epicene” in Sontag’s words. On the occasion of the 1986 “Alternative Miss World Contest”, Perry shared a catwalk with radical drag performance artist Leigh Bowery. More recently he referenced a camp staple, the movie The Wizard of Oz, as part of his self-narrative, his grand entrance into the art world akin to Dorothy’s yellow brick journey (Playing 106). Two plates, entitled “Mr Ernest Boulton” and “Mr Frederick Park” pay tribute to the famous cross-dressing Victorian couple, that Perry champions “on commemorative plates as if they were folk heroes” (Perry quoted by Klein 144). More anecdotally, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, recounts an early adulthood in close contact with the gayer elements of 1980s popular culture like Boy George and Marilyn who lived downstairs in the same London squat (140), suggesting a greater awareness of the homosexual subculture of the period than he sometimes seems ready to admit.

  • 15 « Consécration de la figure du travesti exubérant ». My translation.

19Despite the fact that it is surely in part on account of the “consecration of the figure of the flamboyant transvestite”15 in the late 1980s and 1990s (Ardenne, 2001, 233) and the “rise of ‘queer’ style”, identified by Joanne Entwistle as having infiltrated the mainstream in the last fifteen years (Entwistle 146), that Perry’s oeuvre is so widely appreciated today, Perry never refers to his work as camp. Nor does he employ the term “queer” with reference to his own work — the only thing he admits to “queering” is his therapy session. Moreover, if his self moniker “Essex transvestite potter” suggests an implicit awareness of the intersectional nature of gender with other identity markers (an issue also explored in The Descent of Man) Perry seems less open to the theoretical underpinnings of LGBTQ identity politics. Indeed, he has even said of his pottery that it was “never going to be flashy gay, window-dressing art” (Portrait 193). Perry sticks stoutly to the old-school term of transvestite or “tranny” in preference to “transgender” when describing himself, and makes it clear that what he does now is that he’s “a man in a dress”, however “poncey” it may be, and nobody is in any doubt about it whatsoever (Cork 196, 192).

3. An unresolved dissonance of gender and genre

3.1 Transvestism as an erotic act

20Heterosexual man he may be, Perry’s preferences and their artistic expression only partially fit a hetero-normative narrative trajectory however: while on the one hand embracing the teleological thrust forward towards marriage and paternity characteristic of what Tom Boellstorff has termed “straight time”, on the other, with his froufrou frocks and art he returns compulsively to the erotic thrill first encountered in his earliest “kinky” experiences as a cross-dresser. These emblematic moments in the life of a “gender dissident whose transvestism is an erotic act” (Jolly 121) have continued to fuel his artistic output and performance. Taking him obsessively back to childhood and refusing to be suppressed, they constitute an on-going dialogue with the past that undercuts conventional notions of individual progress towards mature adult selfhood. This positions him outside the narrative of heteronormativity and instates him in a realm where the pleasure principle still holds sway.

21The ornate, hand-sewn costumes in which Perry now appears combine artifice and authenticity. They are outward display of a deep-seated inner compulsion—the artist says of transvestism that he is “trapped in a desire to do it” (Grayson Perry in Confidence 29:38) —, the expression of a very genuine gender dysphoria whose powerful “lust[ful]drive” (Perry in Croft 193) has fuelled Perry’s work from the outset, long before he and his dresses became a household name. An early vase for instance entitled Secret Woman and dating from 1986, celebrates Claire’s status as what he terms the “central plank of my creative drive” spawning a rich internal iconography, as Perry explains

Here, there’s an angel figure with a hard-on and Claire, wearing a dress from the office, appears with a halo, patting the angel on the shoulder. It’s like the spirit of my femininity descending to earth and blessing me with inspiration. (Klein 34)

  • 16 Promotional video clip for the exhibition Making Himself Claire 4 November 2017 - 4 February 2018 a (...)
  • 17 Cf. supra, note 11.

22Ostentatiously contrived, eschewing any attempt at passing as a “real” woman, Perry’s flamboyant frocks, are at once a disguise that protects the artist from self-disclosure (“When I walk into a room, I want people to look at the dress and not me”16) and a way to challenge the sway of the banal and the commonplace in contemporary art (Ardenne, 2001, 225). Indeed, Perry’s dresses express something both candid and singular about artist and artwork. It might even be suggested that in Making himself Claire, the title of an exhibition showcasing the artist’s frocks,17 Perry is making himself clear, revealing the inner truth of his erotic impulses through the apparent mask of costume.

23A key moment of Perry’s narrative of self-discovery and self-expression was when, distancing himself from transvestite orthodoxy and the importance it accords to looking “naturally” feminine, the artist first donned a self-consciously contrived little-girl frock:

I had a kind of epiphany in 2000 when I realized that being a transvestite wasn’t about pretending to be a woman. It was about me putting on the clothes that gave me the feelings that I wanted, and I would get the most concentrated hit of those feelings from something frilly and flouncy. (Klein 139)

24“Claire’s Coming-Out Dress” (2000), all in pastel satin, adorned with bows, sashes and frills at first glance seems the epitome of frivolity and farce — pantomime theatrics to entertain the gallery. Yet the costume was designed by Perry for a touring group show called A Sense of Occasion which exhibited objects made for “serious ritual purposes” (Perry quoted in Klein 139), and indeed, while the dress is girlie in a style redolent of the fairy tale or Alice in Wonderland, the fabric, richly adorned with embroidered motifs, has something of the religious habit. In this sense, the robe also recalls the risqué-erotic eighteenth-century penchant for ecclesiastical cross-dressing, transgressing normative gender, and Protestant Christian boundaries:

In eighteenth century masquerades ecclesiastical dress was a favourite kind of travesty, charged with erotic significance: […] the clothing of the higher Catholic clergy (abbesses, cardinals, even the pope) afforded opportunities for the luxurious display of jewels robes and furs […]. The pretence of celibacy offered the most titillating opportunity for inversion: the scandal of cross-dressing and the scandal of religious impersonation, when present in the same transvestic figure, intensified the libertinism of the masquerade. (Garber, Vested Interests 219)

25Yet Perry also wore the dress for a “real occasion”, his official coming-out ceremony as a transvestite at the Laurent Delaye Gallery in 2000 and it carries a certain solemnity for the artist as a sincere, genuine expression of selfhood: “not something staged as an ironic performance piece” (Klein 139). Perry has called his cross-dressing “the heraldry of [his] subconscious […] a physical manifestation, an outwardly worn symbol, of what is happening within” (Klein 127). The images on Claire’s coming out dress are autobiographical in reference and go back to his childhood: Alan Measles, the artist’s teddy bear, an idealized male role model; an airplane (Perry’s father had served in the RAF); a butterfly, symbolic of a transvestite emerging from the cocoon of puberty. The butterfly has a penis, which is prettified with a bow “decriminalized” as Perry puts it transformed into a motif you might see on a child’s dress, “like a pair of cherries” he says (Klein 139). This apparently throwaway comment itself has autobiographical resonances, recalling an early childhood experience on the occasion of his sister’s tenth birthday:

One of the guests wore a blue-and-yellow, little-girl-style Crimplene dress with pretty cherries on it. I saw that dress and fell utterly in love with it. When we played Murder in the Dark I had surreptitious feel of her frock, I couldn’t help myself whispering ‘Ohhhhh!’ It was electrifying and I desperately wanted that dress. She looked sweet in it and I wanted to be her. (Portrait 76)

26Another such memory links pottery and a formative fetishistic experience as a child. It is a recollection to which Perry has returned in a number of interviews and accounts, though each time with subtle differences, indicative, perhaps, of its hybrid status between fact and fantasy. As Marjorie Garber reminds us “‘Life’ is what is sought in biography. But it is precisely in eroticism that real life/stage life distinction breaks down” (Vice Versa 142-143):

We had to wear light-blue smocks for pottery. They were made of heavy, rubberised material, similar to oilcloth, had elasticated sleeves and they fastened up at the back with snappers. In my first pottery lesson I had last pick of the smocks so the one I got was tight. The classroom helper, Miss Maple, was sweet and glamorous in a secretary sort of way and always very kind to me. She had false eyelashes and looked like Dusty Springfield – I remember her having a beehive hairdo. […] The combination of Miss Maple doing up the snappers and the squeaky, smooth, unyielding, restrictive plastic garment turned me on. (Portrait 47)

3.2 The tranny aesthetic

27We should not be surprised then, that for Perry, the past is a familiar country: “the objects that inspire me are pre-1900,” he says (Grayson Perry in Confidence 41:24); their value not simply as ironic postmodern “quotations”, but rather as tropes of a transvestite selfhood as he explains in an interview for Bloomberg television:

the way I work with tradition […] meant immediately that I was having a dialogue with all these different times and cultures and that is what I do to this day, whatever medium I pick up on, I’m always looking backwards and forwards […].

28Precious boys (2004) copies an Art Nouveau Japanese Satsuman vase. Around “the shoulder of the vase [are] lily pads painted in different patterns, with their roots trailing down” (Klein 50), while big carp swim between the roots towards the base of the vase. In Perry’s version, which he describes as “a bit of a self-portrait”, the original Art Nouveau lily pads are replaced by transvestites in full seventies garb and the carp by jet planes “a sort of brooding masculinity and aggression alongside the quite poignant attractive surface” (Klein 50). This unresolved dissonance of gender and genre recalls a similarly threatening (or “brooding”) vision of unstable boundaries as identified in Mapplethorpe:

The message that Mapplethorpe delivers is that the experience of any masculine or feminine identity is the sensation of unstable, constantly readjusted succession of poses. In his work, the crossing of boundaries between aggression—or phallic drive—and submission is not simplistically developed as an opposition between masculinity and femininity, it is experienced as a drama that takes place within the entire range of sexual identities. (David Joselit quoted in Garber, Vested Interests 161)

There is a tension at the heart of Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, verging on paradox, between its most distinctive content and in its mode of presentation. The content of the work is often sufficiently erotic to be considered pornographic, even by the artist, while the aesthetic of its presentation is chastely classic—it is Dionysiac and Apollonian at once. (Danto 1996, 23)

29Perry’s oeuvre reminds us that the transvestite erotic cannot be ignored, least of all by artists, because it is the “opening up of a new way of thinking, of possibilities” as Marjorie Garber, citing Mapplethorpe, contends (161). In addition to the popular English slapstick-pantomime tradition as he himself has argued, Perry’s cross-dressing can also be traced to an international lineage of artists concerned with exploring the sexual and creative power of gender dysphoria. Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s female persona, whose very name proclaimed the centrality of Eros to life and creation, is perhaps the most obvious of these. Duchamp is significant also in that his “ready-mades” challenged the boundaries of what constituted art. Perry’s work also crosses boundaries (between art and craft) and imbues this shift with an erotic resonance; this point is underlined in a videoed Guardian interview during which he stresses the “charge”—a term rich with sexual connotations—that ceramics implied and involved:

Doing pottery was quite a charged thing because it was okay for Duchamp to get a urinal which was also coincidentally made of ceramic, and taken that into the art gallery and that’s a bold, conceptual move, to bring that in and say it’s a ready-made and an art work – a hundred years old now— but to make pots and say that’s art that was a little bit suburban almost and so I like the charge around that vanity of small differences. (Grayson Perry in conversation, 3:08)

30Transvestite jet pilots (1980/81), a mixed media installation that Perry now views as “the beginning of [his] artistic career” (Klein 18) seems to be making precisely this point, with its jarring gender and class juxtapositions (a utility dressing table decorated with carvings of an aircraft cockpit controls, carved testicle “jewellery” embedded with glass on the ring tray) and in the bottom drawer five images moving from Michel Angelo’s David to Perry in drag as a “kind of Oxfam Auntie” (Perry in Klein 18) where the oxymoronic “charge” of the suburban (Grayson Perry in conversation 3:32) or “perversion to match the curtains” (“Grayson Perry-Artist’s Profile” Saatchi Gallery) replaces classical paradigms of beauty and good taste.

3.3 Transvestism as “category crisis”

  • 18 The only artefact Perry kept from his childhood, the cuddly toy, became a symbolic father figure wh (...)

31Perry’s cross-dressing can and has often simply been read as one of a number of “motifs” along with class difference, and Perry’s much-venerated teddy bear, Alan Measles,18 that “feature” in a highly autobiographical and essentially inoffensive oeuvre. This article would conversely contend that cross-dressing is central to Perry’s aesthetic and that the blurring of gender binaries offers one of the keys to understanding Perry’s ambiguous and unstable status as at once deeply subversive and yet conventional and homely, ordinary and extraordinary, self-consciously contrived and perversely authentic. As cultural theorist Marjorie Garber has argued of transvestism,

[…] one of the most consistent and effective functions of the transvestite in culture is to indicate the place of what [may be termed] a “category crisis”, disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social or aesthetic dissonances. (Garber, 1993, 16)

32By “category crisis” Garber understands:

[…] a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits of border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another: black/white, Jew/ Christian, noble/ bourgeois, master/ servant, master/ slave. (Garber, 1993, 16)

33The transvestite figure or mode is its privileged embodiment, “function[ing] as a sign of over-determination—a mechanism of displacement from one blurred boundary to another” (Garber, 1993, 16) through the disruption of the male/female binary.

34Drawn to transvestism in part through identification with women as socially inferior, it is by extension the lowly cultural status or “humility” (Grayson Perry in Confidence 13:07) of pottery that also attracted Perry, as a quotation posted on his Saatchi Gallery web page reveals: “one of the reasons I dress up as a woman is my low self-esteem, to go with the image of women being seen as second class… It is like pottery: that’s seen as a second class-thing.” Perry, the “man-in-a-dress” thus deploys what he terms “guerrilla tactics” (Stuart Jeffries online) to infiltrate the femininely-encoded domestic space with his signature vases. Sex and Drugs and Earthenware (1995), for instance, is described by Perry as “a Chinese vase in the spirit of punk”; it features a picture of Claire captioned “as if it was a perverse lonely hearts column” (Klein 46) with a quotation from an American transvestite magazine the artist had been reading at the time: “TV gorgeous sissy seeks position as maid to strict lady. Loves b. and d. rubber, humiliation, cock torture, will change my body for you.”

35Themselves redolent of a buxom female form (Jacky Klein calls them “self portraits of a sort” 11), made to be displayed and admired, Perry’s urns gesture to a certain form of highly decorative femininity or “sassiness” to use an expression beloved of Perry, whilst text and image convey a very different message.

Conclusion

36This paper has attempted to assess the role and status of cross-dressing in Perry’s work and gauge its provocative potential in the light of the artist’s own increasingly established position within the cultural mainstream. At one level I have observed how Perry’s current popularity seems to have led to him being adopted as a sort of cuddly cross-dressing mascot for Britishness or Englishness, the latest in a lineage of harmless English eccentrics, and the embodiment of the national love of the comic and the absurd. By stressing the humorous side of transvestism Perry appears to be buying into this image, which has become in a sense his brand. A closer look at artist and art has contended that his power not only to “play to the gallery” but also his need to satisfy a very real “arousing […] sexual fetish” (Croft 194): Perry is both entertaining and disquieting, an elusive figure, ever escaping the viewer’s grasp. Indeed, what Marjorie Garber calls “the extraordinary power of transvestism” resides in its capacity to expose “cultural or aesthetic dissonances and to undermine the very notion of an ‘original’ or ‘stable’ being” (Vested Interests 16). Perry’s exuberant outfits and personality, like the seductively beautiful urns he creates, function to lure and as examples of “guerrilla tactics” he deploys to draw the viewer into a world that is anything but bland and consensual. In life as in art “dusted by the perversion brush” (Klein 123) Perry is on the lookout for what he terms as “areas of discomfort” (Klein, 39), which can be seen as the metaphorical expression of his own gender dysphoria and the erotic charge that fuels his artistic expression, opening up new ways of thinking and offering new possibilities for sexual identity and the aesthetic.

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Notes

1 Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! showed at the Serpentine Galleries in London in Summer 2017 and at the Arnolfi Centre for Contemporary Arts in Bristol the following autumn.

2 The exhibition Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk showed at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate in 2015: https://www.turnercontemporary.org/exhibitions/grayson-perry. Accessed 16 December 2017.

3 Strangely familiar (2000) is also the title of one of Perry’s vases, which the artist describes as follows: “The surface layer shows people playing out S&M scenarios; below that are the images of suburbia, as a skin of respectability, and below that […] the layer of the unconscious like a voice from childhood” (Perry in Klein 124).

4 Significantly, in the same 2009 interview with Richard Cork he also claims both to “always define [him]self as an artist who happens to use craft techniques”, and yet also “not call [him]self an artist now [but] ‘an engine for social change’” (Cork 200, 193).

5 Lilley cites A Secret History of Clay: from Gauguin to Gormley (Tate Liverpool 2004); Return to Earth: Ceramic Sculpture of Fontana, Melotti, Miro, Naguchi and Picasso 1943-63 (Nasher Sculpture Center Dallas 2013); Back to Earth. From Picasso to Ai Weiwei –The Rediscovery of Ceramics in Art (Herbert Gerisch-Stiftung in Neumünster, Germany 2013) and Ceramix: Rodin to Schütte (Sèvres, France & La Maison Rouge, Paris 2016).

6 “Exaspération à l’égard du culte du Nouveau.” My translation.

7 “Aborder l’art, c’est aborder l’artiste.” My translation.

8 “Jouer contre la banalisation.” My translation.

9 The BBC's flagship annual lecture series delivered by “significant international thinkers” and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. The series was inaugurated in 1948 to mark the contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the BBC's first director-general.

10 The BBC’s Culture Show, Newsnight Review and the satirical quiz programme Have I Got News for You.

11 For instance, All in the Best Possible Taste (2012), a three-part series where Perry goes, as the opening sequence explains “on safari through the taste tribes of Britain” dissecting style across the class spectrum and “using his discoveries as inspiration” for six tapestries. The success of the show led to a two-year contract as on-screen social anthropologist for TV company Channel 4.

12 In her seminal reflection on the nature of femininity, Joan Rivière contended that womanliness is always a mask, never the expression of a biological essence: “the reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine woman and the “masquerade”. My suggestion is not however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing (Rivière, 1929: 306). Significantly with respect to Perry, Rivière’s study focussed on how women in positions of power projected their femininity as a protective shield against supposed male aggression.

13 Marjorie Garber gives the following definition of pantomime: “as it evolved in the latter part of the nineteenth century from its roots in commedia dell’arte and the harlequinade, the pantomime was a traditional Christmas entertainment in which an actress, designated the Principal Boy, played the hero’s part, and an actor (the dame), played the comic female character, usually an old and/or ugly woman. Fairy tales often provided the foundation for the plot: Cinderella, Dick Wittington, and His Cat, Mother Goose, the Babes in the Wood” (Vested Interests 176).

14 In their study of British cultural identity, for instance, Mike Stormy and Peter Childs discuss “the almost mythical ‘eccentricity’ of the British (or perhaps more precisely the English)” (163).

15 « Consécration de la figure du travesti exubérant ». My translation.

16 Promotional video clip for the exhibition Making Himself Claire 4 November 2017 - 4 February 2018 at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/exhibitions/grayson-perry-dresses/.

17 Cf. supra, note 11.

18 The only artefact Perry kept from his childhood, the cuddly toy, became a symbolic father figure when the artist’s father left the family home, and remained a “glamorous, raffish, effortlessly handsome character” at the heart of his imaginary until mid-adolescence (Portrait 15). Alan Measles has continued to provide the adult Perry with inspiration for what he terms “part of my own self-mythologizing exercise” (Klein 274).

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Margaret GILLESPIE, « “Perversion to match the curtains”? Grayson Perry’s tranny aesthetic », E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 22 juillet 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/7841 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.7841

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Auteur

Margaret GILLESPIE

Université de Franche-Comté
margaret.gillespie@univ-fcomte.fr
Margaret Gillespie lectures in English studies at the Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon, France. She co-directs the “Sexual Identities” research pole, the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires et Transculturelles (C.R.I.T ea3224). Author of a PhD on Djuna Barnes, she has published a number of articles on gender and sexual identity in Anglo-American literature.

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