His books – a slim volume on art and a thicker volume on masculinity – were well reviewed and he’s a regular in both the social pages and the opinion pages. Even the more conservative sections of Fleet Street gurgled with pleasure when he wore a “mother of the bride outfit” to collect his CBE from Prince Charles.
People who would struggle to pick Damien Hirst out of a police line-up recognise Perry – and Claire in particular – instantly. He’s that rare thing: a heavyweight contemporary artist who could appear on Strictly Come Dancing one night and a highbrow discussion on toxic masculinity the next. He lives with his wife Philippa, a psychotherapist and author, in a smart part of north London. Their daughter Florence, a former editor at Buzzfeed, has just published a book on feminist sex.
On the cusp of 60 he stays fit by riding his mountain bike through a forest in London’s green belt at least twice a week. When he craves more speed he dons leathers and takes one of three custom Harley Davidson motorcycles for a spin. “I’ve always loved the whole Easy Rider thing,” he says. “And I like dressing up as man on the weekend sometimes.” Cue the dirty laugh.
When he started wearing women’s clothes as a youth, it was a furtive, dangerous act. The risk of discovery and humiliation gave him a sexual thrill. Dressing up as Claire is still a turn-on, he insists, but the circumstances have changed.
“I’ll [dress as Claire] if everyone else is dressing up,” he says. “If I’m going to a smart lunch or a public situation. Sometimes I’ll do it if I fancy a day’s shopping because it makes it more fun. It gives me a chance to take some of my wardrobe for a walk.”
He knows he’s playing a game of sorts; that Claire has become a kind of media-friendly brand. “When I was nominated for the Turner Prize and the media asked me for a photograph, I gave them one of me with a beard,” he recalls. “Not one newspaper ever used that photograph. They all dug up a picture of me in a dress holding a Kalashnikov. So, I knew it was a good publicity thing. And I like dressing up. I’m a transvestite. So, I get excuses to dress up all the time. It’s fabulous.”
He appears to have drawn a firm line under his traumatic childhood in Essex, a period that saw him retreat into a fantasy world centred on Alan Measles, his teddy bear. Perry was four when his mother, Jean, ran off with the family’s milkman. She later married him, and in his 2005 memoir Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl Perry describes years of intimidation meted out by his stepfather, a part-time wrestler.
Perry and his mother were estranged long before she died of a stroke in 2016. He did not attend her funeral and the mere mention of her name sets him on edge.
“In many ways, the fact I didn’t speak to her wasn’t about the past, it was about what she was like in the present,” he says. “But yeah, my parents, they’re a big disappointment to me. I’m always slightly envious when other people talk [fondly] about their parents because I never had any of that. A conclusion that I’ve come to in later life is that the reason I’m really self-contained is because I’ve had to do it on my own. That is one of my dominant traits – I’ll just get on with it.”
But yeah, my parents, they’re a big disappointment to me.
A long silence suggests the subject is closed for discussion.
Perry’s ubiquity has triggered a backlash in some quarters. His most recent show, Super Rich Interior Decoration, was a collection of vases and tapestries mocking the wealthy art collectors who line up to buy his work. A tapestry titled Large Expensive Abstract Painting and a hand-woven rug decorated with the outline of a homeless man called Don’t Look Down set the tone. The fact the show was held in Mayfair, one of London’s swankiest districts, only enhanced the stench of carefully orchestrated hypocrisy.
Perry says he was inspired by a quote from the video art pioneer Nam June Paik, who said: “An artist’s job is to bite the hand that feeds him, but not too hard.” Some critics felt he was having his cake and eating it; that he should have bitten the hand off at the wrist. The Guardian’s art writer Jonathan Jones described the show as “deeply stupid”. “He’s the mirror of the age,” he wrote. “And what I see looking at these crowded, fussy cascades of casual intolerance is pathetic.”
Perry does a good impression of a man who couldn’t care less. “Hypocrisy is the central theme of the show. That’s how we end up in the polarised world we have today. I think I’m making a pretty sharp point about what’s going on in the world at the moment.” He pauses and exhales. “F—, I can’t be dealing with it. You’re just thick if you don’t get that one.”
Does he read his reviews? No, he says. Well, sometimes.
“Reviews only hurt if you think there’s an element of truth in them. If they’re just ridiculously vituperative you just think, ‘It’s all about you, mate.’ ”
The fact is, he likes nothing more than raising two fingers to those aspects of the art world he finds insufferable. As part of that quest he says things – in print and in person – that other big-name artists simply don’t say.
For example: “I’m publicity friendly and I’m in the entertainment business.”
The entertainment business?
“Yeah,” he says without missing a beat. “A lot of artists kid themselves that they’re deeply serious politicians, or activists, or scientists of the conceptual, philosophical realm. But people go to art exhibitions on their day off. It’s a leisure activity for most people. You don’t want to go into a gallery and be hectored.”
He’s warming to his theme now. “There’s a section [of the art world] that has somehow over the years equated performative seriousness with worth. Gradually they’ve upped the obscurity of the language [used to describe art] and the difficulty of the art. They’re like academics who only speak to each other. They might have great ideas, but they’re so badly communicated that they might as well not have had them. If the ideas aren’t that good don’t f—ing make art about them. It’s like they’re scared of their ideas being exposed by clarity and a wider audience.”
His next venture is taking his stage show, Them & Us, to Australia. It’s a lecture of sorts, a discussion on “cultural divisions” in the age of Trump and Brexit. If that sounds a bit dry, it isn’t. Each member of the audience is given an electronic device that allows them to record their response to Perry’s questions in real time. For example: is collecting vinyl LPs a left-wing or right-wing pursuit? “The devices give us an accurate poll of the entire audience within five seconds,” he explains. “You can have a lot of fun with that.”
He ran some of the show’s cultural references past the author Kathy Lette recently to find out if they would resonate with an Australian audience. Would Australians have an opinion on a Fiat 500, for example?
“I dunno,” he says cheerfully. “I suppose they would.” He pauses. “Collecting vinyl is left-wing by the way and so is owning a Volkswagen camper van. I’m always pleasantly surprised by the predictability of the audience. Heh heh heh.”
He loathes the sclerotic effect partisan news and social media is having on public opinion. “If you’re not careful you end up having a list of 20 things and if other people don’t agree with all 20 they’re FASCISTS!” he says feigning indignation. “I read a tweet the other day that said, ‘You can tell a lot about a person by their attitude to Extinction Rebellion.’ You’re not allowed to be ‘meh’ about Extinction Rebellion. Centrism is now an insult.”
Is he a centrist then? “No, but I’m not an extreme left person.”
He’s hard to pin down, in other words, and clearly likes it that way. “There’s a tension in my work between seduction and repulsion,” he says. “That’s what I’m always looking for, that sweet spot. The best reaction to my stage show is what I call the ‘cringe laugh’. That, ‘Ooh no, he’s got me.’ That’s fun. If someone can put me on the spot and make me laugh at the same time, I think, yeah, bang to rights.”
Them & Us is at the State Theatre on January 16 and at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on January 18.