in Frieze | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam

David Shrigley's drawings and sculptures

in Frieze | 11 SEP 95

Come to me those who labour or are heavy laden and I will give you rest and a nice hot cup of tea.'

from David Shrigley, Book-mark (1995)

David Shrigley's sculpture and drawings, like Thomas Pynchon's early fiction or the illustrations to some contemporary 'Pilgrim's Progress', describe an arcane and dangerous world in which the smallest of incidents present moral crises and the best intentions of sanity or innocence are challenged by the forces of evil. With the acuity of a moral philosopher, Shrigley externalises the doubts and fears of the human condition in comic scenes and objects, the sincerity of which is reinforced by the seemingly painful amateurism of their author's style.

Unlike the professionalism and apparent erudition of much contemporary art, Shrigley's dominant aesthetic is the crude vernacular of graffiti, doggerel, doodles and vandalism. The humour in his work conceals a vision of humanity which is derived from religious allegory and the deep absurdities which accompany notions of moral edification or social conditioning. To say that Shrigley is a religious artist would not be strictly true, but to suggest that the comedy within his work is a comment upon the workings of religion does much to distinguish him from satirical cartoonists such as Gary Larson or his precursor Kiblan, with whom he could be compared. These are the desperate notes, projects and observations of an untrained outsider whose conflict with moral legislation lends a kind of semi-formed authority to his pronouncements. Like a person who sends officious or incomprehensible letters to the editor of a local newspaper, expecting engagement or dialogue on their own terms, Shrigley's drawings exist in the singular world of their own sealed vision.

Shrigley studied Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art, having taken his Foundation year at Leicester, collecting materials for his sculptures in a small pizza delivery van. The course at Glasgow had an emphasis on community outreach projects and civic sculpture, but it was the urban context that informed Shrigley's work more than its subject or audience. His unlocked studio, situated near a struggling Job Club, was often raided by vandals who amused themselves by making additions to his paintings. Acknowledging the comedy within the discrepancy between the miscreants' anti-art attitude and the claims of fine art to instruct or enlighten, he developed a graphic style in which the banal or the absurd could be used to make statements about the capriciousness of fate, producing anecdotal drawings and sculptures in which the punch lines described the irony of moralising in situations which made no moral sense.

There is a dialogue between Shrigley's drawings and his sculpture in which the notion of reconsidering banal, daily situations and objects as tests of our moral sense is sustained. In a piece entitled Charity (1994), Shrigley took an archaic charity box in the form of a crippled child and gave it an extra head, matching pathos with absurdity and questioning the nature of casual good deeds. In The Contents of the Gap Between the Refrigerator and the Cooker (1995) he extended Rachel Whiteread's concretisation of negative space in domestic interiors by making a small isthmus of brightly coloured, cartoon-like creatures and objects modelled out of 'Fimo' clay. The result is a mesmeric loaf of stratified, fantastic detritus, the tiny elements of which blink up at the viewer with round, complacent eyes. This piece extends the old comedy routines of decaying items in shared fridges, and reinforces Shrigley's interest in describing the evidence of what Shakespeare called 'deeds that hath no name' - the abandoned scenes of seemingly illogical events.

Shrigley's books, Merry Eczema (1992), Blanket of Filth (1994) and Enquire Within (1995), trace a gradual move away from traditional cartooning and a honing of style towards narrative sequences and confessional fragments. The landscape of the later drawings is the towns and provincial cities of Britain, weighed down by the apparatus of retail culture and democratic consumerism, and filled with the nervous energy and boredom of high streets, precincts and sinister suburbs. Superficially, there is a similarity between Shrigley's vision of Britain and that described by Viz comic's ubiquitous town of Fulchester, but where Fulchester is the cleverly observed venue for various comedies of recognition, Shrigley's annotated maps and empty horizons are a mixture of abstraction and emblems, articulating modern life by the reduction of a community to a series of quasi-journalistic ciphers. In Burn Out (1995), we read: 'Experimental rock music came and went. Girlfriends picked up their clothes and left. There was no milk and no bread. I noticed people coughing and vomiting by the bins. The pox had come to town and it was having a good time. We all took a bus to the centre of town, bought some petrol and burned down the hotel, the hospital and the orphanage. Nothing is or ever was sacred.' This is the Britain of small town riots and local atrocities; it is a realistic description of the social and moral collapse often reported as 'senseless', confounding mediation and somehow rendered mute by its very familiarity.

Many of Shrigley's drawings and sculptures are concerned with the unreported tragedies of everyday life, or with the confines of daily routine which breed a kind of autism. Time and again Shrigley will conclude his pieces with a pessimism which must be taken as thinly-coded despair: 'They eventually found him hanging beneath the bridge.' (Small Town Blues, 1995); 'Failure to complete what one has started' (Failure, 1995); 'The hopes and dreams of worthless losers' (Things in Bits, 1995). And yet there is a morbid fascination in following the narrative logic of Shrigley's drawings, partly because the despair is delivered with unique comedy, and partly because the blatancy of his tragic pronouncements is wholly recognisable as an articulation of our darkest moods or fears. Shrigley's notion of the brute indifference of fate towards the frailty of lives and communities provides a paradoxical frisson of pleasure when it is described with neither saving clauses nor intellectual qualification: we seem to experience the enjoyment of having our worst fears justified.

The Devil makes several appearances in Shrigley's drawings, usually causing pain and disruption for his own casual amusement, but his presence is always suggestive of the reduction of life to a constant battle between good and evil. The final drawing in Enquire Within, Result, shows Good versus Evil as a football match, with a nil-nil draw but Evil winning 5-4 on penalties after extra time. Shrigley's art, alternately despairing and hilarious, reveals the evidence of failed endeavours as the ultimate proof that we live in a hostile world because of the varying degrees of laziness and evil within ourselves and within the doctrines of organised religion. This does not necessarily mean that there is no chance of redemption, and Shrigley's comedy appears to confirm the belief of great humourists (from Laurence Sterne to Woody Allen) that laughter is synonymous with hope. In the arena of contemporary art, Shrigley's work maintains a dualism which is rare, rewarding and ultimately generous.