To the pantheon of gender-bending motorcyclists – the infamous, notorious, or hidden – we must add Grayson Perry, multi-talented artist, transvestite, Turner Prize winner, and dedicated biker. I was lucky to catch Perry’s show at the British Museum in London last week, ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, and began smiling the moment I spotted the ‘Kenilworth AM1’, his custom Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, at the head of the grand curved staircase in the museum’s atrium.

The entrance to the British Museum exhibit

The smile never left; Perry’s exhibit of selected Museum artifacts beside his sculptures, paintings, and quilts, weaves a thread of humor and unexpected meaning between the old and new artworks, as if all art ever created were, in his words, “the material culture of a bohemian diaspora, a global tribe whose merchants and witch doctors bartered with a wider population by selling artifacts invested with a special quality; the quality of art.”

Grayson Perry with his ‘Kenilworth AM1’ custom Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, built by Battistani Customs in the UK

The ‘Kenilworth AM1’ is Perry’s two-wheeled ‘popemobile’, a performance-art prop created to carry Alan Measles (Perry’s 50-year old teddy bear/muse/alter ego/totem) on a pilgrimage to Germany, in a glass-sided reliquary mounted, naturally, on the ‘sissy bar’ of his custom Harley. The AM1 is built and painted up much like Perry’s trademark ‘drag’ outfits, using highly saturated colors and shapes reminiscent of ‘Outsider’ art. The elongated pink-and-blue petrol tank is painted either side with ‘humility’ and ‘patience’, which Perry notes are the “opposite of rocker lifestyle texts.”

The Harley-Davidson Knucklehead engine surrounded with ‘Humility’ – a quality not often associated with Customs!

With a matched riding suit of bright yellow boots, an outrageous lavender Peter-Pan-collar jumpsuit, and spring-green helmet, Perry’s riding ensemble creates a motorcycling image which borrows nothing from anyone or anything…there’s simply nobody else on the road with the cojones to wear THAT outfit while riding THAT bike. While custom shops, tattoo parlors, and clothing outlets are busy selling ‘individuality’, Perry has taken a brave and lonely path, to BE an individual.

‘Patience’ on the far side of the Kenilworth AM1 tank

“One fact that every transvestite has to come to terms with is that a person dressed up in the clothes of the opposite sex is somehow inherently funny. I feel it has profoundly shaped my own outlook on life. I regard humour as an important and necessary aspect of art.” Grayson Perry explores, via humor and an ‘innocent’ surrogate, a whole range of difficult subjects; religion, violence, sexual politics, poverty, and the encroaching i-vapidity of our gadget-dominated culture.

The saddle bears a likeness of Alan Measle’s face

Perry began as an art-world ‘outsider’ himself, as a self-described ‘transvestite potter’ and unlikely candidate for the prestigious Turner Prize; ceramics have rarely been considered worthy of inclusion in major museums, and like motorcycles, are dismissed as ‘craft’. While Perry honed his skills as a ceramicist, he explored deliberately provocative imagery with his glazes, and gained a following for the brilliance of this juxtaposition – difficult subject matter with masterful craftsmanship.

Alan Measles as Crusader on a horse, cast in bronze

Grayson Perry has always been motorcyclist; “I’ve never owned a car. I love motorbikes. I’ve got a Harley, which is perfect for summer when you want to go slow, pose and enjoy the scenery, and a KTM, which is brilliant for getting from A to B fast when it’s wet and cold and you want to feel safe. In 1989 my wife Philippa bought me a set of motorbike leathers – the first thing I ever had made for me. I designed them to be like the Cerne Abbas giant. I used to wear them to art openings so I could go there on the bike but still feel dressed up…. Motorbikes aren’t manly. Look at mine. If a bloke has to prove his machismo with a motorbike, then he isn’t very macho.”

A transvestite with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle; Grayson Perry

Motorcycling, masculinity, and a therapeutic exploration of his childhood (Perry’s wife Philippa is, incidentally, a psychotherapist) are clues to Perry’s art at the British Museum. His father, who left while Perry was very young, was an engineer and masculine amateur wrestler, and a biker. After he left, young Perry’s teddy bear – Alan Measles, a gift on his first birthday – became a complex and psychologically loaded fantasy figure, the centerpiece of his play, the hero all his masculine fantasies; undefeated race car driver, fighter pilot, war hero. The tour de force of Perry’s new art is the elevation of Measles to the status of a God-in-the-Making, the centerpiece of a new cult, a future Deity to an uncreated religion. The childhood stories of the bear’s battles, injuries, and ultimate triumphs, have been transformed into a narrative arc of a fictional Prophet Hero, an immediately sympathetic character (who doesn’t love a teddy bear?) imbued with the magical realism of childhood – that combination of keen observation with fantastic invention.

Grayson Perry’s initial sketch of the Kenilworth AM1

The ‘Kenilworth AM1’ was sketched out by Perry, and built by ‘chopper shop’ Battistini’s UK (who, curiously, don’t claim credit for their work online, but do link to the exhibit in their blog); the project builders were Nigel Green, Anthony Foy, Adam Smith, Alan Smith, Dan Smith, and Tom Fuller.  Nice work, gents: bet your other builds aren’t in a museum!

Grayson Perry on his pilgrimage, in Germany

 

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