I walked into Grayson Perry’s exhibition, “The Charms of Lincolnshire,” a little before six last Wednesday evening and found the artist in the midst of an interview for “PM,” the BBC Radio 4 flagship that British politicians consider platinum airtime. “We’re coming to you live from the Victoria Miro Gallery, where the private view starts in fourteen minutes,” said the broadcaster in his booming voice. “Grayson, talk us through your outfit for the opening this evening.” No longer just a transvestite potter, but an all-round multi-media sculptor, printmaker, photographer, curator, TV presenter, Times columnist, and clothes horse, Perry replied: “It was designed by a Saint Martin’s student for me. It’s kind of 1950s-tea-dress-meets-Wonder Woman with a touch of Elizabeth I.”
Since his Turner Prize victory in 2003, Perry has become the UK’s most famous artist. The British public love to loath Damien Hirst but, for better or worse, they love to love Grayson. Bored with Hirst’s obsession with money, the public gobble up column inches on Perry’s broad range of manias: sex, politics, death, violence, childhood, and the decorative arts. Visually transgressive, but verbally down-home, Perry has a flair for sound bites like “Rebellion is for squares” and “Coolness is the enemy of creativity.” No enfant terrible, Perry is more of a well-psychoanalyzed post-hippie intellectual with an unreformed desire to be the perfect little girl.
So, it goes without saying that there was a long, motley queue waiting to enter, and crowd control was at a premium. Ushers directed the human flow through the cheery gloom of the exhibition and then out to the terrace where bottles of beer and water were served by the canal. It’s always difficult to appreciate individual works in charged (and humid) circumstances, so the first job of the viewer was to identify the fourteen Perry pieces that were mixed in with the Victorian curiositiesa horse-drawn hearse, human hair embroideries, Babylonian tear bottles, and vintage photographs.
If the exhibition offered a bit of a “Where’s Waldo?” experience, the crowd offered up a game of “spot the hack.” I don’t remember ever seeing such a large congregation of critics, journalists, and other media types at a private gallery opening. I witnessed one weird moment when six people were simultaneously touching Perryfingering his frock’s fabric, prodding the diamantes, reality checking his lean body underneath. The artist has this effect; people abandon their inhibitions and fetishism runs amok. Accustomed to seeing her husband manhandled, psychotherapist Philippa Perry was having a jolly good time. All dolled up with false eyelashes and an ample amount of all-natural breast, she introduced me to a handsome actor friend as having “an allotment where he grows his own beef . . . I mean leeks.” Why is it that shrinks always make the best Freudian slips?
And we hadn’t even gone upstairs yet. This evening included the unveiling of the biggest gallery back rooms in Europe. Victoria Miro, the grandest of London’s grande-dame dealers, has added 9,000 square feet of Claudio Silvestrin-conceived VIP spacewith lounges, a cantilevered balcony, and a cavernous multipurpose room to be used this evening as a 160-seat banquet halland loos rumored to eventually house video facilities for which artists will be invited to make “site-specific” works.
Beyond another checkpoint and up some stairs to a champagne reception, another gathering of better-dressed people emerged. Intellectual pundits like Lisa Jardine and Marina Warner and collectors like Miel de Botton Aynsley, Robert Devereux, Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker, David Ross, and Saffron Aldridge mucked in with gallery artists like Thomas Demand, Idris Khan, Smadar Dreyfus, and Conrad Shawcross. It might also be worth noting the presence of British Council Director of Visual Arts and commissioner of the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, Andrea Rose. Could it be that this year’s British Council choice will coincide with popular opinion?
One thing that gives the art world its vitality is the mixing of social types. After a meal catered by Bistrotheque, Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins praised the great hall: “It’s like an Oxford College with all the paneling stripped out and painted white.” Just then, Lord Marland, a collector and fundraiser for the Conservative party, came over. When I introduced the Tory Lord to the feisty socialist writer, Marland joked, in a way that was oddly charming, “You’re death warmed up for me.” As the pair engaged in some good-natured political banter, I scanned the assembled crowd. The room had begun to clear, but Grayson, now wearing a bib inscribed with the word “Pansy,” his makeup a tad smudged, was still cracking wise: “Heat is the enemy of drag.”