Maybe Shrigley should
run Glasgow. At least
he'd make us laugh
You have to laugh. Or smile copiously at any rate. An encounter with an example of David Shrigley's work often catches one off-guard and encourages a trigger within the emotions to grin if not necessarily guffaw. Even his name, Shrigley, invites a smirk or two given its rhyming possibilities: wiggly, squiggly – giggly even.
Shrigley, Macclesfield-born but having studied at Glasgow School of Art, decided to stay and work in the city where he now does his bit to add currency to the cultural fabric of the place.
'Brain Activity', the subject of a new exhibition of his work at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank, has been exercising art critics and others, some nonplussed yet mostly amused by Shrigley's drawings, sculptures, videos and photographs. Looking obliquely – as one might feel disposed to do – at the exhibits, what struck me was a distinct connection to Leonardo da Vinci and Donald McGill of naughty postcards fame. But more of that later.
A few commentators, seemingly unsure how to regard Shrigley's cartoons and scribbles, have carelessly thrown around the word 'absurd'. And in the Hayward rooms, there might appear to them a whole theatre of the absurd in the sense that many of the pieces appear often to represent comical and nonsensical wordplay.
Even the Hayward's catalogue refers to Shrigley's 'Everyday Life' exhibits as 'often curious and absurd propositions'. Yet it remains a loaded word and often used in a dismissive way, as in 'Don't be absurd'. So how might one approach this Shrigley retrospective? From the point of view perhaps of what Bertrand Russell and others called sense data? What we are perceiving, through the sense of sight, may be nothing more than hallucinatory.
Or does Shrigley's work stand this theory on its head?
On seeing his depiction of a stuffed Jack Russell (no relation to Bertrand) holding up a placard with the legend 'I'm dead', do I believe it to be so? The 'facts' before me beg me to conclude as much, yet my perception of such events would not, given that they could not possibly occur outside a work of the imagination.
That, of course, is Shrigley's beacon: his imagination. A prodigious organ it is, a one-man imaginarium. Such 'Brain Activity' it contains and churns out. He is so modern, he's post-modern; he's so ironic, he's post-ironic. He gives the game away himself: in one of his cartoons, he shows a glass case stuffed with unspecified objects and calls the piece 'Museums are Full of Crap'.
Even to call him a cartoonist can muddy the waters. Michelangelo was a cartoonist, as were Raphael and Leonardo; their cartoons were lifelike drawings often used as preparatory tools for full-scale paintings, whereas the cartoons of Shrigley and other modern purveyors of the art seek to mock or caricature reality. It was fitting therefore to have visited in the same week the Leonardo exhibition at London's National Gallery, with its copious cartoons surrounding his illustrious Milan paintings.
Many of the items on show at the Hayward, however, while inducing
smiles on the onlooker without often really understanding the reason,
have true depth.
Imagine a little scenario that might bring the ancients and modernists together… Leonardo sought to depict at the behest of his patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, a flawless, beautiful and spiritual world that would be the aspiration of all people of knowledge. How he hoped to achieve this without recourse to a 52in telly or the latest iPad is a moot point. Such lampooning is the stuff of the cartoonist of today.
Critics of Shrigley's work include members of the 'is it art?' brigade. Many of the items on show at the Hayward, however, while inducing smiles on the onlooker without often really understanding the reason, have true depth. Of that there is no doubt in this onlooker's eyes.
Stated by at least one London critic as a Glaswegian artist, Shrigley is hard to define and all the better for it – it gives us more to think about – yet he is highly regarded, certainly, having enjoyed several exhibitions around the world, the current one at the Hayward being the largest so far in Britain. Kelvingrove, as is their wont, hosted a tiny Shrigley show in 2010.
His witty postcards, too, can be a delight and are often to be found in gift shops, not least in the Hayward Gallery shop. They attract – dare I say it? – a similar audience to those of a previous postcard artist. Donald McGill, another cartoonist often mistaken for a Scot, made his name but no fortune from the saucy seaside holiday postcards holidaymakers sent in the 1950s and 60s.
Shrigley can also be regarded as a direct descendant of Marcel Duchamp, who was not above injecting a little ironic humour into the Dadaist proceedings with seminal – unfortunate term, I know – objets trouvés such as 'Fountain'. Or piss pot in the language of the common man.
A Shrigley example in this tradition at the Hayward show is a photograph of a big cardboard box standing in a Glasgow gap-site with the words 'Leisure Centre' daubed on the front. The item – which may also be regarded as a scathing social satire – was created in 1992 while he was a student of environmental art in the city.
It might be profitable to consider his work as a means of communication: if it speaks to you in a meaningful way, then good, enjoy it and empathise with its creator. Shrigley declares the responses he would like to his pieces 'are laughter, intrigued confusion and disquiet'. 'I don't want to permanently alter the world,' he says, adding ominously, 'Only the city council is allowed to change things forever.'
With what we know of the shenanigans at George Square, both historic and current, perhaps Shrigley might have made a better fist of things than the city fathers – or mothers.
At least we might have got a laugh out of it.
'Brain Activity' is on at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 13 May
Barney MacFarlane is a former journalist, now involved in PR
and freelance editing