Sunday, 29 April 2012

An essay on Shrigley.

What have been the connections between fine art and design? Choose one specific decade and the design / designers must relate to your own pathway area and link their work/s to relevant post-modern ideas and theories.

Shrigley’s name is hardly an unfamiliar one in the contemporary art world. Since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 1991 he has regularly published books, exhibited in galleries, worked on magazine projects/ illustrations, and more recently has been dabbling in animation. In recent years the growth of his popularity has accelerated even more so; and his work has been applied to an expansive range of projects, catalogued as a daunting record of achievements on his website. Shrigley is everywhere: t-shirts, album cover art, sculptures, films, posters, post cards, plectrums, skateboards…(the list goes on). He has even had a stint as a tattoo artist!

 I first recall being introduced to his work when I saw it being used in the opening animated sequence for the film Hallam Foe (2007). His trademark drawings and handwriting are also featured in [the main protagonist] Hallam’s diaries. At the time, not being familiar with Shrigley, I was unaware of the parallels between the character and Shrigley himself. Hallam is a compulsive voyeur, addicted to spying on the people around him and quietly judging. Is this a reflection of Shrigley? Perhaps the film makers recognised something of what they wanted Hallam’s personality to be, in him.


Shrigley’s work has a satirical quality that has allowed him to transfer it from a personal, almost self-indulgent way of working, to a commercially appealing array of what he reluctantly admits are ‘cartoons’. His scribbly drawings arguably might fall into the category of illustration; aesthetically at least. It is appealing in terms of its design; comparable to the modern brand of illustrators whose work is almost diary-like; derived from their own content, like an illustrated critique of their own life experience. People such as Lizzy Stewart and Flora Rogers create personal booklets or ‘zines’; they are not strictly illustrators; more like ‘authorstrators’.  Likewise, the content of Shrigley’s pieces is always taken from a personal viewpoint; one that seems to be blurted out impulsively and compulsively, yet with darkly thoughtful undertones. It seems that over the years he has earned the right to have his voice respected and revered. His success as both a gallery and published artist has given him free reign to let his opinionated work out to the world- a barrage of critical social commentary and an illustrated display of witty humour that is in high demand.

‘To quibble over whether Shrigley is a ‘fine artist’ or a cartoonist is just that: quibbling. He is, perhaps, neither- rather he is the maker of meta-textual chapbooks that simultaneously drag us back to a pre-literate past and flog us forward towards an unutterable future.’ (SELF,W)

The manner in which Shrigley addresses issues in his work is, in a strange way, made diplomatic by the simple and innocent manner he presents it. Journalists and critics have a tendency to describe Shrigley’s work as harbouring morbid understatements, focusing on its reference to death and the negatives of society (e.g. ‘[his] darkly comic doodles have been compared to the scribbles of a serial killer’ (SOOKE, A)). Perhaps there is a reason for the seeming obsession with attaching a dark edge to Shrigley. Maybe he would be the subject of greater fascination with disturbing or odd personality traits. An old theory, as Diderot proclaimed in 1763, is that ‘“Great artists are a bit crack-brained.”’ (PATCHETT, T. p.8) Art historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower have also observed that the ancient Greeks found artists interesting ‘largely for their eccentricities’ (p. 8), such as sculptor Apollodoros whose temper problems led to him often smashing up his work. ‘Will we ever tire of celebrating the dark side of genius?’ (p. 8) It seems that when viewing Shrigley’s work there is a temptation to over-analyse it, perhaps conjuring up illusions about its depth that go beyond what he has intended. When explaining himself, he seems to prefer to be succinct; modestly unpretentious, without wallowing in the philosophy of his art, which makes the speculation into darker meanings a little superfluous. When prompted about the work’s undertones he has replied jokingly: ‘“I don’t think I’m clinically depressed,” [he says] with a wry smile. “So I don’t know where the darkness comes from.”’ (SOOKE, A. p. 52)

Conceptualism is an important element in Shrigley’s art, and it is his ideas that carry the distinctive style and give it relevance. In disagreement with the critical perception of conceptual art being a ‘blank’ (as asserted by his interviewer at the Brain Activity exhibit), he believes ‘”Conceptual art is honest and it’s a figurative painting that is a lie.”’ (YOUTUBE)Conceptual artists rely on the clarity of their ideas, which are exposed to the world in a way that traditional art is protected; hidden behind the skills of a talented crafts-person or painter. The armour of a conceptual artist is their confidence. Shrigley suggests ‘”one part arrogance to two parts self-confidence”’ (YOUTUBE). However, he does not class himself as a strictly conceptual artist. He is a prolific drawer, “’sort of over-productive”’ (YOUTUBE); more frivolous than perhaps some of the stricter conceptualists.

It is largely through Shrigley’s conceptualism that he waves the postmodern flag. An intrinsic part of his practise is constantly making reference to the world, a thoughtful reflection on what he finds ridiculous or has a curious obsession with. He likes to subvert the expected, and is constantly mindful of conventions, so that he may challenge them. For example, an animation exhibited in Brain Activity is a film of a man sleeping. He explained that he was interested in making an animation that almost went against the point (of showing images in motion) by showing very little movement. A short clip of the film revealed a man sleeping, slightly fidgeting, made alive by the grumbling sounds of his breathing. Shrigley seemed enthralled by the reactions, curious to how people would interpret it and try to explain what was going on- is he having a bad dream? Is he dying? What is the reason for his limited movement? By turning the expectation of an exciting, dynamic animation on its head, he potentially gives it greater meaning, as perceived by its viewers.

‘[Postmodernists] embrace a much more cautious and limited perspective on truth and knowledge, stressing that facts are simply interpretations, that truth is not absolute but merely the construct of individuals and groups, and that all knowledge is mediated by culture and language.’ (BARRETT, T. p. 31-32)

Shrigley’s work is strongly postmodern in this respect, as its comprehension relies on an awareness of our western culture and surroundings. For example, the following piece:

We understand the humour because we are aware that in English cities, pigeons are everywhere and can barely be told apart; therefore the notion of someone looking for one is completely absurd.

Not all of Shrigley’s work is social commentary; much of it seems to consist of imaginative little scenarios, thoughts that he found amusing and recorded, or his opinion (whether it seems to be asserted urgently or not). As I mentioned earlier, with this almost diary-like selection of ‘cartoons’, he can relate strongly to many modern illustrators in style and intent.

Lizzy Stewart has published works which include the charming book of ‘short stories in picture form’ (Stewart’s official website) called Cardigan Heart. Like Shrigley, her own thoughts or memories appear apparent. The appeal of the work is due to its intimate nature, and its secrecy. Its complexity may lie less in a viewer attempting to comprehend an intended meaning, but more in the personal perception of the ambiguous meaning. The viewers of this kind of work can relate to it on a personal level and identify with it; it is accessible and relevant to people, as it has emotional content; content which hasn’t been made intimidating with complex techniques or any illusions of ‘grandness’.

Text on right reads: ‘Ediburgh- I’m a jumbled as your mess of rooftops. I think it’s why we’re such good friends.

Text reads:  ‘Two PeopleShe would pull her sleeves down over her hands making her appear constantly self-conscious, which, of course, she was. It also meant that all her cardigans were mishapen. “The red-haired girl smiled at him from across the room. He would see that smile across countless rooms over the course of his life but there, that day, was the first.” She loved when writers jumped, momentarily, into the future. Three years from now she would cut off her hair during a bout of Jean-Seberg-fever. A decision she would hide with a hat for many months. (She would also be useless at parties her entire life.) She photographed all the lost gloves she found on fences. (And took the saddest ones home). He made mixtapes, still. He made them obsessively and lovingly for no one in particular. He didn’t like when strangers spoke to him on the train so would often pretend to be French; a plan that only backfired once. His beard hid most of the scar from when, aged eleven, he fell from a trampoline whilst trying to impress his older brother. He kept all his cinema tickets in a shoe box. Even the shit ones. He was always losing his gloves.'


Controversially, Shrigley himself has helped in speaking out against illustrators who work in such an insular way. His art work (as seen above) has been used recently in an article for the Creative Review by Lawrence Zeegen, who states ‘Illustration has become entrenched in navel-gazing and self-authorship… it has withdrawn from society's big debates to focus on the chit-chat of inner sanctum nothingness. It’s time for the profession to stop pleasing itself and engage with the world outside.’ Perhaps Shrigley, then, wouldn’t appreciate a comparison to these illustrators. It is difficult to pigeon-hole someone whose work doesn’t seem to assert a decisive preference for its purpose-after all, Shrigley’s work is used a lot in Merchandise, like the work of illustrators who may not contribute towards ‘society’s big debates’. However, Shrigley seems to have respect for all classifications of ‘artist’ and is certainly not afraid to explore them himself, blurring boundaries as he goes, constantly challenging his art to oppose itself: ‘"naive/sophisticated; whole/part; framed/unconstrained; to scale/in perspective; naturalism/fantasy"…To which one can add, among other things: funny/not funny.  (LEZARD, N )

In conclusion, it is safe to say that Shrigley’s work, whether he likes it or not, does bridge the gap between fine art and design, increasingly so as his popularity grows. His sharp awareness of our postmodern, contemporary culture informs his practise and becomes part of it. Hopefully it can be anticipated that he will continue to be unstoppably prolific.

LEZARD, N. (2012) David Shrigley: One of the cleverest, funniest conceptual artists. The Guardian, [online] 27th January. Available at: [Accessed 23rd February 2012]
SOOKE, A. (2012) Madly Drawn. Telegraph Magazine, 28th January, p. 51-53
ZEEGEN, L. (2012) Where is the content? Where is the comment? Creative Review. [online]28th February. Available at: [Accessed 29th February, 2012]

BARRETT, T. (2012) Criticizing Art/Understanding the Contemporary 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
FREELAND, C. (2001) But is it art? New York: Oxford University Press.
SELF, W. (2010) Introduction by Will Self.
In: SHRIGLEY, D. (2010) The Essential David Shrigley. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.
SHRIGLEY, D. (2010) The Essential David Shrigley. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.
STEWART, L. (no date) Cardigan Heart. Self-published. Purchased at ‘Pick Me Up’ 2012, Somerset House, London.
Hallam Foe  (2007, David Mackenzie, UK, 91 mins.)
PATCHETT, T. (1998) Most Art Sucks- Five Years Of Coagula. California: Smart Art Press
David Shrigley ‘Brain Activity’. (2012) Youtube. Available at: [Accessed 23rd February 2012]
David Shrigley’s official website:
Lizzy Stewart’s official website:

Image List
1.& 2. Hallam Foe .[DVD stills] (2007, David Mackenzie, UK, 91 mins.)
3. SHRIGLEY, D. (1996). Lost. Available at: [Accessed 23rd February 2012]
4.&5. STEWART, L. (undated). Cardigan Heart (selected pages). Available at: [Accessed 23rd February 2012]
6. SHRIGLEY, D. (undated).  Fight the Nothingness (photograph of work outside the Hayward Gallery, London).  Available at: [Accessed 29th February 2012]

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