Freelance

June 26, 1998

Two pieces of art have arrived at Sacy-le-Petit for the Midsummer's Day opening.

Cars keep doing double-takes and reversing back past the front gate as they catch sight of Andrew Logan's larger than life-sized bronze "Pegasus", with its immense blue glass wings, standing on its plinth in the middle of the lawn. So far, the only art lovers who have made it up the garden path are a gang of local teenagers, the same ones who threw mud at me last autumn, on the look-out for anything that isn't nailed down. Last time they came in they stole my stapler. This time, they help themselves to unripe raspberries. I produce the visitor's book, thinking to get their names by stealth, and one of them tries to run off with that.

The second work, which is still being assembled by the artist in a more secluded corner of the garden, is "Essex Man" by Grayson Perry. He wanted a grass-covered, coffin-sized mound prepared for his bronze racing car, and the little native-style garage he is going to build for it, and is not impressed with the weedy pile of mud he is presented with. He trims some fallen branches for the corner posts and roof beam of the shelter, then I help him lift the strangely heavy little car - mottled green with copper nitrate like a prehistoric Chinese relic - out of the boot of his car and on to the ground, where it immediately sinks up to its axles.

Perry's Essex Man is not so much a mate for Essex Girl as a sort of ersatz local shrine to a lost idyll - an elegy for the rustic 1950s childhood he never had. The car is its funeral vehicle. The word "Dad" is carved into the coachwork of what looks like an early Bentley. "All my remembered dreams are on wheels", Perry tells me, "skateboards, mountain bikes, motorbikes, cars. But there's always something wrong with the handlebars, or there's a door handle sticking out where the steering wheel should be . . .".

Perry's dad, an electrical engineer, had a motorbike and sidecar. Then he got a Ford Anglia. "He used to just look at it. He wasn't pleased when my mother got her test before he did. That was when my stepfather came along in his E-type - he was the milkman - and off she went in it. I was four and a half."

The autobiographical element of the piece is a huge urn. Known mainly as a potter, Perry usually crowds his work with elegantly obscene biro sketches, animal transfers, flower patterns and carbuncles of sprig mouldings like some manic Victorian scrapbook, but this one is more spare, showing photos of his parents' house in Broomfield, Essex, and another of people who look a bit like his relatives and ancestors. A severe Victorian dame looks especially familiar. "All the photos are of me", he explains, "but they might be three different people and they might even be the people in the grave. I suppose what I'm doing is putting to rest the memory of my relationship with my father, whom I haven't seen since Flo was born in 1992. After she was born, I went a bit bonkers. I felt the responsibility welling up to give her a decent childhood, but I realized at the same time that it wasn't that difficult and I felt anger at my parents for not delivering one to me." First he had a go at his mother - in red ink. Then he wrote to his father, not such a strong letter, and his father's wife rang up, warning him not to rock the boat. "They came to the christening, and after it my father said, 'I'll give you a bell, we can't talk here', and that was the last I heard of him. Flo's five now." He points out his father's stylized body parts engraved on the bonnet of his getaway car.

If Grayson himself is Essex Man, he has a slightly more middle-class alter ego, Claire, a straight-laced forty-something housewife in a Barratt Home and twin set - the same Victorian dame who appears on the pot - another symptom of his missing family. "I'm a tranny, that's it", he says. "Claire has been with me since puberty, but she's ahead of me, she's in her forties now. Most trannies are very straight, and when they dress up as women they find freedom, but Claire's a lot straighter than I am. She's my mistress." If you ask Grayson to dinner, you can never be sure who will turn up - he can make up the numbers on either side - the glamorous Thatcherite Claire, clothes and hair immaculate, expression primly flirtatious, who makes quilts in her spare time, or the unshaved debonair London post-modernist Grayson - potter, sculptor, competition cyclist, motorbike enthusiast, dad. Men find the latter easier to get on with, but women love the transgression with its suggestion of sexual surrender.

Grayson began making his hand-built pots at evening classes ten years ago, but he traces his interest in pottery to a specific incident in his childhood. "One afternoon when I was eight or nine years old, I was given my first pottery lesson at Woodham Ferrers C of E School, Essex. To protect our clothes, we were made to wear long-sleeved smocks made of light blue rubber. I can vividly recall mine being too small as the teacher did it up at the back. I became very excited at the feeling of the tight smooth material. In this state I made my first pot, an ashtray for my dear mother."

You get the feeling that Grayson and Claire collaborate nowadays. From a distance, his familiar Adam vases and Chinese ginger jars are comforting and inoffensive, but, having lured his viewers with familiarity, he zaps them with a welter of transvestite, bondage and sado-masochist imagery. For people with a foot in the rough and genteel worlds, he makes two-faced pots: one side to amuse their swinging friends, the other to be turned to face the room when aged relatives call. "A lot of people who buy my work are into the shockingness of things. They're the kind of people who watch Reservoir Dogs." Perry says he likes to taunt the art world with the fact that "we're all just making knick-knacks for posh people", but the art world is not always responsive to the artistic claims of a mere potter. "The trouble is that pottery is almost too close to art to be co-opted into it. A shark, that's OK. But a pot - that's too close for comfort. If you call your pot art you're being pretentious. If you call your shark art you're being bold and philosophical."

He wakes up this morning feeling anxious. How is he going to make the roof of his shrine? He rummages around in the stables - untouched since the days of horse travel - and finds some ready-made thatching, once used to cover the hotbeds. The sections fit exactly. As they go up, we are amazed to see the open-sided construction transformed into the picture on the invitation. It only remains to append the various ceramic dolls made for the occasion by friends, and the shacky, cargo-cult effect will be complete. You expect to see a picture of the Duke of Edinburgh somewhere, or perhaps the Spice Girls, instead of which there's a photo of the 1920s racing car which inspired the piece, some minor, smarm-haired hero of the motor-car era behind the wheel. I remember seeing things like this in the New Hebrides, scruffy pessimistic efforts at amelioration, strung with mysterious bits and pieces. I can see him from my window as I write, standing admiring his creation, now and then snipping the thatch or adding a doll to a crossbeam. He has strung some of them in nearby trees, where they swing and glint in the sun, turning the whole area into a sinister pseudo-sacred enclosure. Watching him work, I have seen another side to his dashing dinner- party persona; somebody who spends hours adjusting and readjusting. Perhaps it is the meticulous Claire who is the artist in him.

A wedding couple have turned up in the garden from the church next door to have their photo taken against the house (she used to work here in the old days), the steps, the roses, the trees, "Pegasus", and finally, as it catches their eye, the little thatched burial shrine with its bronze racing car and dangling dolls. As they pose in front of it in all their crispy wedding-cake finery, they make this elegy to a lost childhood look like a voodoo fertility temple, smiling happily as if nothing could conceivably go wrong.

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