Grayson Perry has a new weekly column in the Times in which he shares with us his views on current art practice. Accompanying the column is a picture of Grayson grinning impishly. Noticeably absent are any of the usual bonnets and bows that are the normal attire of his art alter ego Claire, who as little (well big actually) Bo Beep wowed us at the Turner Prize giving and was seen bobbing about in search of the big bad wolf at this year’s Venice Biennale. Why Perry should have felt that Claire was not appropriate for the column is not clear; perhaps he wants to be taken as a serious down to earth potter after all. Certainly the reactionary nature of most of his comments in the column is more fitting for a ceramicist than a contemporary artist. But perhaps this is just another guise, for the impish grin in the picture suggests a certain knowing, a peculiar projection, a reversed “passing” if you will.
For transsexuals intent on the sex change OP, passing is the holy grail of achievement. Passing is where with enough shaving, make up, padding and tucking in the right places a 13 stone builder can be transformed into mademoiselle x, and travel unnoticed up and down the high street. Indeed if the OP is to be performed on the NHS, then Brian must live as Brenda for six months, practising the feminine until the illusion is complete. Clearly Claire is an altogether different club. Claire is in some ways far closer to the drag act of someone like Lilly Savage than the surgeon’s knife.
The terms transvestite and the transsexual are often confused in the public mind. However whereas the transsexual seeks to pass unnoticed, to be taken for a woman the transvestite and certainly the full-blooded heterosexual transvestite, often as not is intent on a sophisticated non sequitur. For Claire or Lilly Savage the illusion of femininity is a transparent projection. We see the exaggerated attire and mannerisms, the camp and crude one-liners but simultaneously we see through to the man underneath. In essence its something of a reflexive art form declaring its artifice and enjoying doing so. The problem is familiarity can make such acts seem unnecessarily mannered and in Claire’s case simply an attention grabbing routine.
Looking at Grayson’s picture in the Times though something curious and far more interesting happens, a reversal of the normal process, as we see past the ‘straight’ look to the transvestite underneath. What was the normally projected female alter ego becomes the hidden or the hinted at. The same thing happens with Paul O'Grady (Lilly’s alter ego) who has started a parallel TV career as himself. The result in both cases is some kind of third person half removed.
In a further twist one of the leading Lilly Savage look-alikes is played by Helen Lilly Neeley; a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Perhaps she will also do a turn as Paul O”Grady as well.