'There's a thing in culture where they think the opposite of seriousness is humour. It's not. The opposite of seriousness is triviality. Comedy is very rarely trivial. It's a profound and important part of being human.'
Grayson Perry – sorry, Sir Grayson Perry, as of June – is showing a small group of us around his biggest exhibition in the UK to date ('Smash Hits' in the Royal Scottish Academy building at National Galleries of Scotland: National in Edinburgh), and telling us why there's an underlying sense of humour in everything he does.
'Humour works with your unconscious and your whole bodily experience. We have a visceral reaction to humour,' he says. 'I think it confounds people who have thought too much and have got too much knowledge, and I think that's why humour often gets sidelined, and yet we marry our partners and choose our friends because they make us laugh.
'It's something to be celebrated and I'm very serious about that,' he adds, before releasing one of his infectious cackles – the most distinctive laugh in the art world.
Ever since the start of his career – the Camden 'squatting years' in the 1980s – when he found his tribe and soaked up every experience he could, humour has been at the heart of Perry's world.
He'd left art school in Portsmouth and, despite initially feeling like a 'hick', fell in with a scene composed of drag queens, fashion students, avant-garde filmmakers and gorgeous nightclub faces.
As he writes in the show's catalogue: 'They taught me that being an artist was more than a job, it was a way of life with its own community. Above all it was fun, we laughed all the time. We laughed at art, at fashion and at ourselves. I was steeped in irony.'
Sometimes the most healthy way to navigate that which frightens, oppresses or guzzles more than its fair share of resources is to ridicule it.
Perry's works are rich with references to greedy corporations, pricy indulgences of the mega-rich and symbols of a country about to change (hello, you threadbare old farting lion in Sacred Tribal Artefact). But he doesn't preach. Absolutely not.
'Good politics and good ideas do not necessarily make good art. I've been into so many shows where I thought (and here he puts on a sarcastic voice): "Oh yeeeah, I never knew that global warming was a bad thing until I saw this student exhibition."'
'It can make for really boring art,' says the artist whose lightly worn intellectual vigour and disdain for dullness make him the ideal art broadcaster.
'People nowadays put this huge emphasis on what art is about but often I think concepts for me are just scaffolding to hang pretty patterns and colours and compositions on,' he says. 'That isn't necessarily to denigrate it, but art is often over-intellectualised. People come in and have a visceral bodily reaction to an object: they see nice colours, nice shapes, patterns, and these are noble, good things.'
Similarly, he claims that colour often comes before concept. 'Sometimes I think, 'I'll do something red today,' then I'll retrofit a sophisticated political theory to it because that's what we do.'
Those 'pretty patterns and colours and compositions' are thrilling to experience in one space. Mischievous, filthy, satirical and anthropological, they're grouped by theme, such as masculinity, class, sexuality (many of those mucky pots from the early days are here), politics and English identity.
He punches up, demonstrates gleeful affection for what some might dismiss as garish, and everything feels so … alive. Alive and honest.
Perry's candour about apparently everything, including money, is refreshing and disarming. Red artworks sell well, he says. And he's found that if a collector spots their name in one of his objects, they're more likely to buy it.
It happened with a pot that was part of his winning Turner Prize show in 2003, and again with his Brexit-flavoured, Paul Nash-inspired 2017 tapestry, Battle of Britain. It features a French lorry with distinctive livery, and the boss of that company saw it at a French art fair and snapped it up.
'Super-rich people are humans too. They want to be in on the joke. They're not daft people,' says the man who named one of his tapestries Very Large, Very Expensive Abstract Painting – evidently to take the mickey out of what fancy folks absolutely must have on their big walls.
Twenty years after winning the Turner Prize, this colourful deviant-turned-national treasure seems almost taken aback by the scale of what he calls 'a very, very dense show'. As Perry walks from room to room, he's hyper-aware of the 'man hours' that have gone into each piece, whether he's looking at a print, a vase or a tapestry the size of a train carriage. So much work. It really is a survey of a life.
At 63, he says he doesn't quite have the same physical stamina levels he once did, but you can tell that fizzing creative energy still surrounds him like a candy-coloured halo. He's sans frock today but he's rocking a kitsch pink sweater with a cat on it (designed by his friend and fellow ailurophile Natalie Gibson, who's been teaching at Central Saint Martin's for 40 years).
His face is free of make-up but his nails are the colours of fuchsia magellanica, and his shiny shoes are toothache pink. His frock-loving alter-ego Claire is not present, but Grayson is casually dazzling.
He claims, somewhat self-deprecatingly, to have had 'the same schtick' for 40 years. 'But I've become more skilful, I've become richer and I've had more opportunities,' he says.
'My wife's cousin went to one of my shows and said: "I saw one of your pots and I thought it was beautiful. And then I looked at it." And now I'm Sir Grayson Perry I sometimes wonder: do they [the establishment] really look at my work? It's not like I didn't set my stall out with my very first piece of ceramics.'
At this point, he gestures towards the first piece he made at an evening class: a plate called Kinky Sex, depicting a man ejaculating money all over himself. One wonders how much Prince William has studied the canon of work of the befrocked man he knighted this summer.
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Perry remains fascinated by the search for authenticity (indeed, one of his 2018 pots, which is concerned with art, money, desire and power, is called Searching for Authenticity) and the concept of second-order observation. This he describes as the idea that 'everybody is looking at the world hoping other people are seeing them look at the world'.
You could never accuse Perry of being anything other than true to himself, and he enjoys noting that 'for the first 20 years people were fine with me being a pervert but they really struggled with me doing traditional ceramics.
'For the first 20 years of my career I was the "transvestite potter". That was kind of my branding. Now you can't say that, of course. Now I'm the transvestite ceramicist.'
Ashley Davies, freelance writer and journalist
The exhibition 'Grayson Perry: Smash Hits', is showing at National Galleries of Scotland: National (Royal Scottish Academy building), Edinburgh, until 12th November 2023. Part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2023
This content was supported by Creative Scotland