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The Essential David Shrigley

Par Johanna Felter : Elève stagiaire - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 21/05/2013

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"David Shrigley is a multidisciplinary artist who started his career in the early nineties self-publishing art books containing cartoon-like drawings for which he is mainly famous. Their trademarks, which are also recognizable in his varied artistic productions – clumsy execution, sloppy handwriting, disturbing or puzzling text, dark humour and uncanny atmosphere – helped Shrigley to gradually shape a clearly distinctive personality in his work which brought him out as one of the current key figures of British contemporary art scene."


David Shrigley is a contemporary British artist, born in Macclesfield in 1968 and living in Glasgow where he settled in 1988 to study at the Glasgow School of Art. Through an international career spanning more than a decade, Shrigley is most famous for his crudely executed cartoon-like drawings often accompanied by sloppy handwritten texts. A respected artist, his works can be found in art books ((The title of this article is inspired from the title of What the Hell Are You Doing? The Essential David Shrigley (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, September 2010) which is a 350-page art book gathering some of Shrigley’s drawings, paintings, and photographs already released or published for the first time – offering thus an expanded overview of his work from the early nineties to his more contemporary productions.)), private art galleries and public collections such as the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine since 2005. A multidisciplinary artist, his work also includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, music albums – Worried Noodles, released in 2007, gathers collaborations with the likes of David Byrne and Franz Ferdinand who interpreted his texts as lyrics – but also animations such as the video clip for Blur’s Good Song that he directed in 2004. His recent major survey exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London last year introduced the public to the humorous and whimsical world of David Shrigley. Characterized by themes such as death, human misery and fears, his work also dedicates a significant place to text working hand-in-hand or in a looser way with images, allowing his audience to be engaged with seemingly more approachable contemporary art.

Deadpan and dark humour for wry observations on the human condition

shrigley1_1369142094828-jpg The full range of Shrigley’s work is tinged with mordant and witty humour although its recurring topics would not be commonly considered as light-hearted. Death, violence and cruelty are themes evoked with taxidermy animals and drawings of men with crooked and deformed bodies. In the video clip he animated for Blur, the love story between a squirrel and a fairy ends up with the animal eating the head of its lover, thinking it was a hazelnut. With caustic remarks and grim humour, Shrigley manages to approach taboo subjects and plays with his onlookers’ most common fears, offering a “slightly autistic, perverse and unfiltered understanding of the human condition ((Emma Mahony, “David Shrigley in collaboration with Yoshitomo Nara and Chris Shepherd”, 2007 <http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/emmamahony.htm >)).” Anxiety, disquietude, unease in front of the dismal events of everyday life and the selfish savagery lying in every man are common feelings which are expressed through scribbles of men with dismembered bodies, crushed by giant animals or killed by incidents from a blind, indifferent and brutal fate.

“In all his work, Shrigley seems to insist on giving place to the abnormal and plays to our fears of the dis-alike, the odd, the peculiar, the insane and irregular, the out-of-control ((Katrina Brown, “Who Is He? Who Did This? Is He Still Here?”, 2007 <http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/kbrown.htm>)).” This is why the artist’s cast of favourite characters is mainly composed of “socially awkward people ((According to David Shrigley’s words in an interview with Maxwell Williams in October 2005 <http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/maxwell_williams.htm>))”: the “freaks”, the “retards”, people in jail or in lunatic asylums, frustrated fat men, handicapped soccer players… Those stereotypes, along with other imaginary characters such as talking vegetables or animals, all victims of rejection, are set in disturbingly familiar situations and emphasize the quirks of a fixed social system.

shrigley2_1369142309883-png Just like those characters, the realities of life are also shown in a distorted way. The artist’s drawings encompass his idiosyncratic logic and because they “disturbingly marr[y] the infantile to the cynical” ((Will Self in his introduction to What the Hell Are You Doing ? The Essential David Shrigley, 2010 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/sep/11/essential-david-shrigley-will-self>)), they sometimes verge on the uncanny, as do his photographs. Indeed, like humour interfering with serious and tragic topics, different dimensions overlap and create whimsical creatures and horrifying yet inconsequential situations. Extracted from their original contexts and transferred to a new inadequate environment, the artist admitted his fascination for found objects such as graffiti, telephone doodles, hand-drawn maps and diagrams. In Shrigley’s world, shopping lists are thus engraved on marble gravestones.

Another source of influence comes from writers such as the American postmodern absurdist writer Donald Barthelme and the English screenwriter, playwright and author Alan Bennett, specifically his series Talking Heads which tackles themes such as death, illness and isolation. In graphic terms, Shrigley named as influential the American Abstract and Neo-Expressionist painter Phillip Guston with whom he shares a clear taste for cartoonish deformed heads and long and slender-fingered hands. Alongside Guston, the American underground cartoonist Rory Hayes, whose primitivist aesthetic served violent subjects, was another influence. Shrigley also stated that he liked René Magritte, a significant piece of information for an artist who, like the Belgian Surrealist painter who devoted several artistic experiments to the articulation of words and images, often combines text and visual representations.


Text is given pride of place in David Shrigley’s work, who admitted that he was probably more influenced by literature than by art, although he also acknowledged his inability to write long narratives as his work is very intuitive and spontaneous ((See the interview with Lindsey Johnson, 2006 <http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/lindsey_johnson.htm> and the one with Micheal Krejewski, 2003 < http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/mk_interview.html>)). From one-page long pieces to dialogues in comic strips or even just a few words alongside drawings or paintings or sometimes inscribed on his sculptures, his handwriting pervades the whole range of his artworks. It explains why Will Self called him an “artist-cum-writer” in his introduction to What the Hell Are you Doing?

Even if text and image in Shrigley’s work sometimes follow the pattern of traditional combinations such as drawings illustrating short narrative pieces or dialogues, or some words used as legends or titles, most of the time his wordy doodles and his graffiti-covered texts can be referred to as “iconotexts”, which are composite pictorial-verbal forms where words and images constitute a dialogical and indivisible unity ((The term was coined by Alain Montandon in Signe, Texte, Image (Meyzieu : Césura Lyon éd, 1990) and Michael Nerlich also offered a reflexion on the same notion in his article “Qu’est-ce qu’un iconotexte? Réflexions sur le rapport texte-image photographique dans La femme se découvre d’Evelyne Sinnassamy” in Iconotextes (Clermont-Ferrand: C.R.C.D, Paris: OPHRYS, 1990). Both critics agree on the definition of « iconotexts » as productions whose pictorial and scriptural components are inseparable, maintained in a continuous balance. The historical perspective can be found in Montandon’s work.)). The iconotextual device, which historically appeared with Romanticism, was crucial in the Surrealists’ practice, the influence of whom can be traced now and again in Shrigley’s at times absurdist logic; it was then brought to a certain climax with the development of comic strips throughout the twentieth century. The aesthetic of comic cartoons is indeed prevalent in the artist’s drawings, sometimes juxtaposed in interrelated panels forming mostly brief narratives or with text displayed in balloons or captions; and the division into several panels often highlights Shrigley’s sharp and striking punchlines.

shrigley3_1369142429314-png The notion of “iconotexts” could refer to artistic productions where text and image are closely and harmoniously combined. This is not the case in such a work with a strong and instantly identifiable personality whose intrinsic specificities rely on a variable and fortuitous distortion between the visual and textual components. For the artist, images and words would ideally be two separate things and their relationship would be somehow “awkward” and “frictional” ((In an interview with Caroline Mutendorf published in Mono-kultur magazine, Jan 2006 – Dec 2007 <http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/monokultur.htm>)). In his work, the plastic and verbal dimensions indeed sometimes coexist in an autonomous way and their dialogue can be irreparably dysfunctional or confrontational, triggering some dynamic and uncanny tensions. Indeed, it is not surprising in Shrigley’s world to find works where the caption “sexy” confronts the painting of gravestones or where the mention “you are here” points with an arrow at an absolutely meaningless ink scrawl. On the other hand, the close interconnection between text and image, notably in Shrigley’s photographs of his environmental artworks – pictures of small hand-made signs or objects with short sentences written on them set in public spaces – creates a perfect visual experience and a poetic feeling. The intrusive voice resonating through the few words adds a new colour to the environment which frames the sign as the onlooker is urged to mentally recreate the picture following the artist’s unexpected comments.

shrigley4_1369142468154-pngThis instantly recognizable voice is attached to a seemingly easily imitable yet very personal handwriting. Its clumsy and unkempt character combined with crossing-outs, misspellings and white-filled spaces inside the letters have become the trademarks of Shrigley’s pervasive handwriting. They also convey an image of “artist in a hurry” who is satisfied with the imperfections which result from a spontaneous and immediate artistic production. However, his poor freehand line is frequently corrected by the use of a ruler, pointing at Shrigley’s taste for straight lines, one of the defining features of the aesthetics of his drawings. David Shrigley’s handwriting betrays both voluntarily exposed confusion and limitations, and an attempt at finding a precise and concise way of conveying his rapid fire wit: “I want to say things as quickly and directly as possible ((In an interview for Colour magazine in 2007 < http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/colourmag.htm>)).” Through the voice expressed in his text, the peculiar aesthetic of his images and the original combination he can find between them, a unique personality emerges through which Shrigley interacts with his audience.

A work which occupies “an odd space between two schools”

((According to David Shrigley’s words quoted in Elaine Liddle’s review “Occupying An Odd Space: David Shrigley”, 2005 < http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/elaine_liddle.htm>)) The amateur style of Shrigley’s work often gives it a more approachable character for an audience interested in contemporary art. A few drawings hint at its “unfinished” or botched dimension – the “unfinished drawing of campsite” or the “unfinished plan for a new and better society” for instance – and one of the features of Shrigley’s style as a draughtsman relies on his voluntarily unconfident line. Along with the drawings, paintings and photographs that are to be found in his art books, his exhibitions introduced the public to a range of bizarre animations and bulky uncouth sculptures in the same vein as his cartoons. A video of an energetic headless drummer is displayed next to giant boots or teacups, tiny men, a cactus pot shaped with the face of Jesus... The accessibility of Shrigley’s art is thus reinforced by his omnipresent off-the-wall humour.

Yet, while the artist was once deemed as “probably the funniest gallery-type who ever lived” by the author Dave Eggers ((His quotation was inserted on the first page of What the Hell Are You Doing? The Essential David Shrigley)), his constant jest was partly responsible for his failing to gain serious interest from the art world. In the same way, his work has been highly criticized for its childlike style which, for some accusers, was the result of limited draughtsman skills. “In Shrigley’s drawings – and Shrigley’s alone – the human body is undifferentiated, as imagined by a child, with sausage limbs and a hammy torso ((Will Self in his introduction to What the Hell Are You Doing? The Essential David Shrigley)).” The poor quality of his drawings, which probably put off some confounded visitors, can also be linked to a deep concern for fast and efficient communication with his public ((From the interview published in Colour magazine)). This is also the reason why Shrigley wants to “simplify everything as much as [he] can to the extent where a lot of the time [he] just use[s] words instead of pictures” ((David Shrigley’s words in an interview with Tal R for Art on Paper Magazine, 2006 <http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/tal_r.htm>)): abstract notions or objects which would tend to a difficult representation are often symbolized by their names inscribed on geometrical forms such as a circle or a rectangle.

shrigley5_1369142543230-png This direct and straightforward way of expressing himself contributes to a significant interaction between the artist and his audience. Through the much-used direct address, the artist tries to install a clear relationship of proximity. Many pages of his handwritten texts look similar to a note addressed to a friend or a relative. Nonetheless, the interconnection between the artistic persona and the onlooker is extremely ambivalent: the latter is often given a prod by a voice in turns aggressive, sympathetic, rude, conniving or authoritarian. The audience is played upon by Shrigley, becoming the easy target of his embarrassing experiences. This close relationship led to an interactive form of art in survey exhibitions featuring live participative performance: life-drawing sessions with Shrigley’s sculpture of a naked man as a model in the exhibition “How Are You Feeling?” at Manchester’s Cornerhouse, or having at some point to crawl through a hole in the wall to access the next room at London’s Hayward Gallery.

shrigley6_1369142573085-png Through his practice, the position of his work, and the contents of some of his drawings, David Shrigley therefore questions the status of contemporary art and the nature of its audience. Indeed, the artist’s production divides an easily blurred line between fine art and popular visual culture. His work has become familiar for a part of his audience through postcards of his photographs and cartoon-like drawings, as well as books sold in bookstores, fashion boutiques, and record shops. Throughout his career, David Shrigley has been critical towards the elitism of the art world and condemned its inaccessibility. For this reason, he considered self-publishing the best solution to offer a true democratic access to his work. Even some drawings foreground Shrigley’s jeering attitude towards the pedantic world of art: in front of a canvas displaying insignificant scribbles, five viewers comment in balloons “how much does it cost?”, “it costs one hundred million pounds”, “it’s amazing”, “it’s very nice”, “it’s probably worth a lot more”. In another drawing, in front a large glass cabinet containing a severed rotting human head – winking at Damien Hirst’s installation A Thousand Years – a man replies to his son: “What is it daddy?” “It’s bloody brilliant son. That’s what it is.” With his savage irony directed at the self-absorbed and pompous art world, his provocative badly executed scribbles embraced as high art and his shows filled with an off-kilter sense of humour, Shrigley – who considers that “all work should exist in some way as a proposition or a re-evaluation of something” ((From an interview with Cherrie Federico for Aesthetica magazine, 2008 <http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/gfx/25david-shrigley.pdf>)) – then invites his audience to dive into a passionate and dividing discussion about the redefinition of Fine art.

 In summation, either after acclaiming Shrigley’s mordant and witty humour, appreciating the fake naivety of his art – thinking that it undoubtedly hides a certain amount of wisdom through his unsettling perceptiveness of everyday life’s dismal events, or after despising his weird, nonsensical and garishly-coloured pieces, every onlooker would agree on the undeniable “personality” of Shrigley’s work, and how visible and immediately recognizable his handwriting and drawing style is. Under the control of an evasive but definitely intrusive, mysterious and unpredictable persona, text and image evolve in a fluctuant and frictional relationship, like the two ends of an over-stretched spring. Through his photographs, video animations, sculptures, interactive gallery shows, and even his most disconcertingly prosaic drawings, a sense of strangeness and uncanny poetry emerges. David Shrigley’s art provokes his audience, introducing them to profoundly and embarrassingly familiar situations presented in such an impassive and unpretentious manner. Challenging the world of contemporary art, he blurs the fine line dividing high art and the vibrant visual culture feeding our modern society, and turns it into a dynamic interface which could pave the way for an enriching collaboration. After his critically acclaimed mid-career retrospective at the Hayward Gallery last year, David Shrigley has been shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize along with artists Tino Sehgal, Laure Prouvost and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. To consider awarding a prize that carries much recognition to an artist whose work has been neglected by the main body of art critics so far may be the sign that Shrigley's work is finally being taken seriously and considered as more than "just funny" ((While Nick Clark emphasized Shrigley’s “fine line between art and fun” in his article for The Independent website dedicated to the Turner Prize nomination, he also quoted director of Tate Britain and chair of the jury Penelope Curtis who stated that the artist “had been wrongly overlooked for a long time because his work suggested itself as being just funny and therefore marginal.” < http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/david-shrigleys-fine-line-between-art-and-fun-nominated-for-turner-prize-8587267.html>)).


Pour citer cette ressource :

Johanna Felter, "The Essential David Shrigley", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2013. Consulté le 16/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/the-essential-david-shrigley