Arts: The wonderful world of Shrigley

David Shrigley flyposts his Glasgow neighbourhood with child-like sketches of moral angst. Prankster or philosopher?
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The Independent Culture
A hand-scrawled note is Sellotaped neatly to a street-lamp. Above it, a little Blu-tac face grins down, childish features Biro-pointed into its surface. "NOTICE", it announces in block capitals: "While you are reading this, there is a man in one of the windows high above you who is taking your photograph. He will then make a wee model of you and put it with other wee models of other people. Then he plays weird games with them."

Welcome to Shrigley-land.

Residents of Kelvingrove, Glasgow, will probably already be all-too-aware of David Shrigley's rather peculiar perspective on things, for it is around his neighbouring streets, that the young artist posts his loony notices. Now a new Redstone Press book, Why We Got the Sack from the Museum, reproduces a few of Shrigley's dafter fly-posting moments, amid a chunky selection of his squiggly cartoon drawings and cranky, philosophical shopping-lists.

Bearing all the hallmarks of having been completed left-handed on the backseat of a speeding Vauxhall Astra by a mentally-disturbed 10-year- old en route to the educational psychologist's, Shrigley's faux-naif drawings have all the finesse of discarded Pictionary sketches. ("These are humorous drawings done by the child murderers of child murderers," decides Will Self in his foreword to the book, recalling that "some of Shrigley's more sexual depictions bear an uncanny resemblance to the drawings Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer, did of his victims.")

A repeating set of scratchy hieroglyphs stagger across the pages: bonfires, vicars, multi-windowed towerblocks, cats, dogs and disembodied heads; free-waving hands, skulls in a geometric maze of intersecting limbs, knobbly insects with pin-man heads, or bemused figures with discrete pre-pubescent genitals. Crammed into smudged charts, they blurt out their absurdist musings in a riot of crossings-out and misspelt underlinings. You'd scream a full-lunged "charlatan!" if it weren't for the pointy-hooved voices that you're by now hearing in your head, whispering for you to go to bed with a mug of Tizer and a dose of Lithium.

It's actually rather endearing, Shrigley's oxymoronic landscape of pedantic chaos. The initially yobbish impression is swiftly dispelled by a quirky gentleness of spirit which owes far more to Ivor Cutler than Viz magazine. The drawings won't get any snazzier, but there's plenty of fun to be had with the angsty captions, such as: "The icon carver has a hangover. This morning he has carved the Blessed Virgin but has done it really badly, so bad it's an insult to God. He feels that he cannot burn the piece as this would be a worse insult (and would surely assure his place in Hell) - so he resolves a solution - he will cut the top piece of the Virgin off and attach it as the lower half of one of the Wise Men (this piece will be carved later when he has got over `the shakes'). He is still not completely at ease with this solution and at lunchtime he will pray for forgiveness."

"I like moral conundrums," explains Shrigley. "My drawings are for people who like to laugh at moral crises. I'd like to think it isn't cynical. It's a matter of making fun of the things you could get depressed about. You've got to laugh." He catches himself. "Sorry, I'm starting to sound like Ken Dodd, but there are some things that you just can't make sense of but you've still got to deal with. I find that quite humorous."

"Workman vs His Tools" reads one assertive page heading, before collapsing into a huge, long list of disintegrating statement attempts: "... none of thise pens work priptyl...nin f the pins wor property ... noon the pets work properly..."

"I quite like existential things," says Shrigley. "It's that realisation you make as you go from childhood to adulthood that life isn't fair - that the good guys don't always win. When I was a kid, I used to watch those Seventies Westerns where bad guys always got killed, then along came Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven, where nobody's really in the right - certain people die and certain people don't, in a big explosion of random violence."

Many of the pictures can be seen struggling to square this realisation with the stubborn residue of a meritorious Christian up-bringing. Religious edicts, maternal naggings, and sneaking, self-imposed guiltinesses all get conflated into a single, new, confused morality structure: "God wants wickedness to be stamped out ... God wants us to feed our guinea pigs and water our bonsai tree ... God would rather we read a book than watched daytime TV ... God wants us to play the record from beginning to end, not just one track..."

Brought up in suburban Leicester in a vigorously Christian household, there is a deep-grained Protestant work ethic which continues to course through Shrigley. When he left Glasgow School of Art in 1988, he felt uncomfortable with the idea of being an artist and thought he'd try and get a job as a commercial cartoonist. Initially, he succeeded in selling a few Larsonesque ideas to Punch and Esquire.

"When I left art school I wanted to have a career. I hadn't been that popular with the tutors," says Shrigley. "I'd always been doing these little sketches, and I thought I could work it up, adapt it, and be a cartoonist - smooth them down, use Letratype for the words etc., but it never quite worked for me. Capitulating in that way is slightly prostituting what you do. Failing at something you don't really enjoy seems to me the worst kind of failure. Failing at doing something you're whole-heartedly into is okay."

Standing at a fraction under 6'6", the 30-year-old Shrigley is neat and scrubbed, his blonde hair severely cut into an Action-Man crew cut. He's softly spoken, in a boyish way, cautiously thoughtful, and very tidy. Four rulers hang in precise alignment from nails above his desk, clumps of elastic bands in sorted sizes loop fastidiously over the shelf brackets; his sketch books have been individually sawn to exact sizes by a friend who works at a print mill. He grimaces in horror as a photo-envelope catches his eye - he's misspelt a word on the front - and lurches for a pen to put the "r" back in "Kermit". "We Virgos hate things like that," he tuts, leaning on his dictionary. If he's so finickety, you can't help wondering whether he is pursuing this scrawly, telephone-pad-style graffiti jotting, just to annoy himself?

"I like the untutoredness of this rubbishy, scratchy aesthetic. It seems honest, somehow," he considers, staring at the calendar cut-out cats that are stuck to his wall. "Certain things happen between the conscious mind and the pen. The doodly things can sometimes express the things that you can't describe intellectually.

"I go to bed early because I think artists need a lot of dreamtime," he adds, before launching into an account of last night's dream about a factory patrolled by vicious Shetland ponies.

"I do drawings, but I also do sculpture and things outside which I then photograph," he explains, pointing out the bubble-wrapped lamppost in the corner - fully working and scaled down to be the same size as himself (title: Portrait of a Lanky Git). Then come photos of a red Kermit puppet stranded on a riverbank; assorted found gloves stuck on to park railings, giving the woolly finger to passers-by; and a portable neon sign for the window (like a seaside guesthouse vacancy indicator) beaming out the word SLUM. "That goes around from house-to-house," Shrigley mentions. "I'm not sure who's got it at the moment - but it always annoys the neighbours." Finally, he lays out a pile of self-published "Armpit Press" books and small press editions of his drawings, such as Merry Eczema and Drawings Done Whilst on Phone to Idiot.

"If you're an artist, you should make the work as accessible and viewable as you can. Books are great for that," says Shrigley, before trailing off into one of his regular crises of self-deprecating doubt. "I suppose they're not really intellectual enough, or academic enough, or even funny enough..." he mutters, sounding like one of his own drawings. "All the crap objects I have made suddenly surround me and start asking me awkward questions: Why did you not choose a profession that was more in keeping with your meagre intellect? Why were we so poorly crafted?

"I never really wanted to be this kind of artist, but now that I am, I quite like it," Shrigley adds brightly. "Maybe it's because I can now make a living from it, but I enjoy doing my drawings as much as watching the telly. Well, more than Taggart anyway, but probably less than Frazier."

`Why We Got the Sack from the Museum', by David Shrigley, is published by Redstone Press, pounds 9.95; David Shrigley talks about Nihilism with Andrew Renton and Edward Lipski at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1, Sunday, 1pm (0171-636 5488)

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