Humour and Horse Tranquilliser: On David Shrigley
Humour and Horse Tranquilliser: On David Shrigley's Lockdown Drawings

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Humour and Horse Tranquilliser: On David Shrigley's Lockdown Drawings

David Shrigley’s ‘The Artist’ (2014) looks a lot like a psychrolutes microporos — that is, a blobfish, or ‘fathead’. Like the blobfish, the Artist has a short, fleshy proboscis. Unlike the blobfish, his nose has a felt tip pen jammed up each nostril. This squashed head, complete with a bad bowl-cut wig, is motorised and programmed to meander around a large piece of paper, leaving traces as it goes.

'One of my strategies is to focus on the process rather than the result. If you are just trying to complete a number of drawings in the day, that’s easy. If you set yourself the task of making a certain number of “good” drawings”, that’s really difficult.’

David Shrigley
Shrig 3927 untitled 2 c copy

David Shrigley, ‘Untitled’, 2020. Ink on paper, 42 x 29.7cm (16 1/2 x 11 3/4in). Framed: 49.5 x 36.5cm (19 1/2 x 14 3/8in). Copyright David Shrigley. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Scrolling through Shrigley’s Instagram feed at the moment is to encounter a similarly meandering series of drawings and a seemingly mechanical output, this time plumbed from the depths of Devon, where Shrigley has been isolating. If ‘The Artist’ expresses an anxiety about the creative role and its processes, then the prolific volume of Shrigley’s Lockdown Drawings surely represents a more mindful groove — despite what works like ‘Deep rut’, showing a stick figure fallen down a geometric pit, might try to have you believe.

Shrigley has made over 400 new drawings since lockdown began, and reportedly has more paper to cover. As well as being posted on Instagram, many of the works were shown in online exhibitions hosted by Stephen Friedman and Anton Kern, based in London and New York respectively.

Watching the kettle boil is ‘Entertainment’. Tea ‘poured from a massive pot’ is a ‘government initiative’. Even novelty is boring, as a hand holds up a lollipop with the corner bitten off: ‘New flavour / tastes of nothing’.

Shrig 3910 untitled 2 c copy

David Shrigley, ‘Untitled’, 2020. Ink on paper, 42 x 29.7cm (16 1/2 x 11 3/4in). Framed: 49.5 x 36.5cm (19 1/2 x 14 3/8in). Copyright David Shrigley. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

‘One of my strategies,’ Shrigley told The Guardian in a recent interview, ‘is to focus on the process rather than the result. If you are just trying to complete a number of drawings in the day, that’s easy. If you set yourself the task of making a certain number of “good” drawings”, that’s really difficult.’ As in process, so in product: an aesthetic of low-stakes disposability runs through each work, and the effect is cumulative.

Shrig 3952 untitled 3

David Shrigley, ‘Untitled’, 2020. Ink on paper, 42 x 29.7cm (16 1/2 x 11 3/4in). Framed: 49.5 x 36.5cm (19 1/2 x 14 3/8in). Copyright David Shrigley. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

‘Keep busy’ shows a hand drawing crosses in a book filled with square boxes. ‘To Hell With This’ sees its titular phrase copied out 128 times on an 8 x 16 grid. Elsewhere, prosaic, fluffy clouds drift through an A3 piece of paper divided in four, captioned: ‘There will always be clouds / You must accept this’. The banal and the gridlike combine with a couple references to ‘horse tranquiliser’ to suggest a pervasive monotony. It’s not only tedious repetition that produces anaesthetic effects, but the kinds of language we use in attempt to dilute it (helpful-not-so-helpful instructions, along with the words ’keep’, ‘accept’ and ‘should’ crop up time and again.) Watching the kettle boil is ‘Entertainment’. Tea ‘poured from a massive pot’ is a ‘government initiative’. Even novelty is boring, as a hand holds up a lollipop with the corner bitten off: ‘New flavour / tastes of nothing’.

Anyone else experienced an impending sense of doom over recent weeks for any reason at all? Nope, just me? Lockdown-inspired these works may be, but we’ll never know.

Shrig 3911 untitled 2 c copy

David Shrigley, ‘Untitled’, 2020. Ink on paper, 42 x 29.7cm (16 1/2 x 11 3/4in). Framed: 49.5 x 36.5cm (19 1/2 x 14 3/8in). Copyright David Shrigley. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Writing about David Shrigley’s work is like being gently baited. Go on, say my picture of a lollipop is anything other than a funny drawing. Go on, say it’s an ‘anhedonic advert’, make yourself sound even more pretentious. His images, in any case, come pre-packaged with their own mordantly critical text, making any further criticism redundant. You need only add five words for a comprehensive discussion of Shrigley’s work: it is what it is.

That being said, I’ll stick my neck out here and say that Shrigley’s Lockdown Drawings do remind me of certain real-world events. ‘As the crisis deepens / people rush to buy swords’, for instance. Does that remind anyone else of March and what a battle it was to find and procure toilet roll, pasta or tinned tomatoes? And, er, that ’big black ball of shit’, a meteorite that Shrigley draws speeding towards the globe. Anyone else experienced an impending sense of doom over recent weeks for any reason at all? Nope, just me? Lockdown-inspired these works may be, but we’ll never know. Ambiguous, idiosyncratic, and applicable to many different times and situations, Shrigley’s work will always read you far better than you can read it.

Shrig 3928 untitled 2 c copy

David Shrigley, ‘Untitled’, 2020. Ink on paper, 42 x 29.7cm (16 1/2 x 11 3/4in). Framed: 49.5 x 36.5cm (19 1/2 x 14 3/8in). Copyright David Shrigley. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

So what’s the big takeaway here? Everyone go off and draw funny cartoons to make themselves feel better? Could do, but just know that David Shrigley has wryly beaten you to that conclusion, with his drawing of a ’special glove’: ‘Put it on do drawings like mine’. Should we instead learn to ‘accept the universe’? Again, no. Yet, as we shift from pathos to paranoia, and from insight to stupefaction, the only way to approach Shrigley’s work is to accept it within the context of its own universe, with all its limitations and ambiguities. ‘Good’ forms of acceptance are really difficult, but maybe acceptance is a process, not a hard-won result. It is what it is.

By Sammi Gale

David Shrigley’s Lockdown Drawings can be seen at davidshrigley.com and stephenfriedman.com. His work will appear in Stephen Friedman’s 25th-anniversary exhibition in September 2020.

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