David Shrigley: Badly drawn boy

With 13 books to his name, a Blur video in the can and a TV documentary about his life soon to air, the artist David Shrigley can be forgiven for taking himself seriously. Interview by Deborah Orr
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The Independent Online

n ugly, badly drawn fairy looks through a crudely block-capitalled list of animals, and starts scoring out the ones he fears will not make good partners. Eventually he decides that a squirrel will make a good partner, and he duly falls in love with one. They are very happy together, until the fairy is shot by an arrow, falls down on a pile of leaves and bleeds to death.

Then a man with a leaf-blower comes along, and tries to blow the fairy's corpse away. Finding that his blower is not powerful enough to remove the dead fairy, he adjusts his machine from "normal" to "dangerous" and blasts the body away.

Then he blasts some other things. He blasts a dandelion clock. He blasts a golf-ball just as it is plopping into a golf hole. He blasts a dog away as it is being penetrated by another dog. He blasts a plane away just as it is about to crash into twin skyscrapers. Then he considers blasting away an almost completed card-house, changes his mind, and just knocks it down with the nozzle.

David Shrigley informs me, in mitigation, that he is 6ft 5ins, the same height as Osama bin Laden. But I fear this interesting fact will not make the animated film he has made to accompany Blur's new single, "Good Song", any more acceptable in the United States of America. Shrigley admits that he's amazed that he and Blur got away with including a whimsical comment about September 11 in the film. Then he remembers that it hasn't been released yet, and that this may be part of the reason why things have been such plain sailing so far.

But he probably will get away with it. David Shrigley is one of those people who always seems to get away with it. At 35, for example, he is an internationally acclaimed artist, exhibited all over the world, collected by Saatchi, the sole author of 13 books of his work, and the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, when to the untutored eye his work mainly consists of a lot of scrappy drawings accompanied by a lot of scrappy text.

Not that the scappy drawings and scrappy text are without content or without charm. They are, in fact, weird, funny, abject, wise, silly, savage, moral and engaging. It's just that they are so amateurish, so intimate, so cultish, so singular, that the idea that they can also be so widely admired feels almost like a con.

The deep engagement that Shrigley fans have with his work is such that each viewer feels that they talk to him or her alone. Finding that loads and loads of people feel the same profound connection, is a bit like discovering that your model husband is actually the world's most prolific bigamist. What a fool one feels to have been taken in.

Not that this is the first time I've been gulled by Mr Shrigley. When I first started reading and enjoying his books, I had no idea he was an artist at all. I thought he was a cartoonist - an odd, quirky cartoonist, but a cartoonist nonetheless. In fact, artists appeared to be one of his targets. One cartoon, Artists, features a man with a speech bubble coming out of his mouth. He says: "I don't actually do the paintings myself, I get a bunch of handicapped kids to do them for me."

Later I heard that Shrigley was in fact a sculptor, a photographer and an "environmental artist" as well. Upon investigation, I learned that even the sculptures and the photographs were cartoons of a sort. One sculpture showed a ping-pong ball marked "You", and a couple of ping-pong bats marked "social services". One photograph was of a sign in front of Norman Foster's overblown exhibition centre in Glasgow, which advised "Ignore this building". Nevertheless, I was informed that Shrigley considered the epithet "cartoonist" to be something of an insult. He was an artist, and what's more, a reclusive, highly strung artist, who demanded to be taken seriously. All this, I felt, made him sound like a bit of a chump.

Chump, as it happens, is very much a Shrigley word, surfacing in his work and in f his conversation. In one drawing, entitled The Role of The Editor, the caption reads: "The role of the editor is to remove pieces of the film so that it makes better sense. This process is carried out in the 'cutting room'. The pieces of the film that are removed are left 'on the cutting room floor'. My friend Martin is an editor of documentary films. He is a boring chump."

But poor old Martin is not the only chump in Shrigley's life. He explains how, when he was shortlisted for the Beck's Futures award - a contemporary art prize run by the Institute of Contemporary Art and hyped as more "cutting edge" than the Turner prize, he was approached by the ICA's director Phillip Dodd at the award party. Dodd explained to him that the famous actor Alan Rickman wanted to meet him and discuss purchasing some of his work. Shrigley, a little tipsy, explained that he's never heard of Alan Rickman, but that if Dodd felt it incumbent upon him, he was happy to press the mystery thespian's flesh.

On meeting the actor though, Shrigley did recognise him. He remembers little of the conversation they had, but confesses that he does have a photographic record of the meeting, with him in classic "Look, I've got my arm around a famous actor, I'm giving a thumb's up sign, and I'm grinning like a death's head" pose.

Later in the evening Dodd asked him what on earth he'd done to upset Mr Rickman so much. Rickman, as far as Shrigley knows, never did invest in his work. "I suspect," says Shrigley with abashed pride, "that I may have behaved like a bit of a chump."

The anecdote does not sound like one that would be related by a man who was desperate to be taken seriously as an artist. And indeed, the way Shrigley tells it, his job description comes more by accident than by design.

"When I first left art college," he explains, "I just didn't feel that I was going to be the kind of artist that showed in galleries. This wasn't really because I didn't want to but because I thought I couldn't. I didn't think it was possible to make a living as an artist, not in Scotland anyway. Not when you only got a 2:2 for your degree and were not in possession of the requisite social skills (or burning ambition) to shmooze with important people. I was not a winner in those days. I think I must have been smoking quite a lot of dope. I was also learning to play the guitar, which took up quite a lot of my spare time. When I left art school I decided that I wanted to be a cartoonist."

But when Shrigley began sending his cartoons out to every publication he could think of that published cartoons, he found that nobody was interested in his work at all. In fact, the only people who ever gave him encouragement were artists and art critics, who told him to stop tidying up his work and presenting it in a commercial style, and stick instead to the rough doodles that he did for his own pleasure. The rest followed from this - invitations to show at galleries, interest from publishers, and not long into his career, a cover story in influential art magazine Frieze, in which the critic Michael Bracewell hailed him as a religious artist.

Further, not only did those around Shrigley decree that he was not to be a cartoonist but an artist, they also decreed that he was not only to be an artist, but also a major player in an important art movement. There are a number of young, highly regarded artists around at the moment who have all, like Shrigley, graduated from Glasgow School of Art. Christine Borland, Douglas Gordon, Jenny Saville, Roddy Buchanan, Toby Patterson, Jim Lambie and others are all lumped together as part of what is quaintly titled by the media, "the Glasgow Miracle".

The hype is a little similar to that which surrounded the Young British Artists emerging at the same time from Goldsmiths College in London. This lot though, are identified strongly with two courses at Glasgow, the fine art degree and the course in environmental art that Shrigley and others on the above list studied.

Shrigley himself is cynical about the praise heaped on Glasgow School of Art and its perceived innovation. He says that Glasgow wasn't a particularly good art college while he was there, and that though "it's got some better tutors now", it's still nothing to write home about.

He suggests that the creativity that has come out of the city is more to do with the mixture of regenerated cultural vigour and underlying poverty and hopelessness which he finds pervasive in his adopted city. Born in Macclesfield and brought up in Leicester, he went to Glasgow and fell in love not with the college, but with the city and its people. The mythology around Glasgow's creative leap certainly adds backbone to Shrigley's own artistic profile. But while he admits that the college introduced him to a sympathetic milieu, he feels that he learned little there that he didn't teach himself. In fact, the drawings that he is best known for, he maintains are exactly the sort f of thing he's been doing since he was a child.

Which brings us back to Michael Bracewell and his assertion that Shrigley is a religious artist. Bracewell appears in the aforementioned documentary, entitled Err ... Shrigley, explaining how he sees the influence of Shrigley's upbringing in a deeply religious household as the wellspring that primarily informs his work. It's certainly true that there is a strong moral element to Shrigley's art, with its Manichean preoccupation best illustrated by a sketch showing three figures, one marked "Good", one marked "Evil" and one marked "Don't know".

Shrigley is keen to dispel any ideas that his childhood may have been dominated by religious fundamentalism. He says there was no "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" aspect to his formative years and that he considers religious belief to be a positive thing - though like many people he is wary of organised religion. He considers himself a moral artist, and sees this as the primary legacy of his family background.

None of this though, is explained in the documentary because Shrigley does not appear in it. Before I interviewed him, I'd assumed that, as the programme says, this was because the man was reclusive, keen to promote an air of mystery around himself, and maybe just a little bit self-obsessed.

In fact, though, his reluctance to appear in the film came more of diffidence. One gets the feeling that, if pushed, Shrigley would have played along with whatever the programme makers wanted. Which, actually, he has. The film is all the better for the absence of its subject. It's more quirky and creative, stranger and more Shrigley-like, because he is not there.

Because it rather suits the promotion of the Shrigley cult for him to be portrayed as eccentric and publicity-shy. There is a segment in the programme where the various people taking part are asked to describe Shrigley's physical appearance. First, the fans who have never met him, talk about their impressions, all of them wildly wrong. Gradually a picture of the man emerges, though not even a photograph appears in the film.

Shrigley is tall, as has already been related. He's also ruddy-faced and rudely healthy looking with longish, blondish, untidy curls. He wears nondescript clothing - V-necked grey jumper over red T-shirt and jeans. Nothing about him suggests a man concerned in the least about his image. He looks, in fact, just as he does in The Independent's portrait, which Shrigley co-operated in without question or demurr. One realises that his nonappearance was a gift to the film-makers, a way of making the artist appear tantalising and cultish, when in fact he is pretty normal.

Far from being secretive, in fact, he is relaxed and forthcoming as an interviewee. He's happy to explain that he lives with his girlfriend Kim, and that since they're both 35 they're keenly aware that they'd better get on with starting a family soon. He chats gregariously about his sister, who lives in New Zealand, and about the time when he made the mistake of getting his mum an inappropriate Christmas present.

"She likes crime fiction, so I asked in the bookshop what was good. They said Val McDiarmid, but it wasn't till I was wrapping it up that I noticed that these were lesbian thrillers. I knew it wasn't my mum's cup of tea, but ... well ... it was Christmas Eve by then. She had a go at it though, and later told me that it was perfectly fine apart from all the lesbian sex."

When it's pointed out to him that his own books are quite similar - good for Christmas presents, but not for Christmas presents for your mum, he seems enthusiastic about the idea of big sales in the run-up to the festivities. David Shrigley's prime concern is still not his reputation, or his place in the art world, but simply being able to make a living from doing something he loves. So help him out by giving someone art and a laugh for Christmas.

As the man himself says, in a strip called Nature, "Sometimes there comes a point with things that you realise, like that everything you liked about that thing, everything you thought was genius, was arrived at thro' fluke, just aimless chance." This is how David Shrigley became an artist. But in the end, it makes his work look more, not less, like that of a true original. E

'Who I Am and What I Want' by David Shrigley and 'David Shrigley: Yellow Bird with Worm' are both published by Redstone Press. 'Err ... Shrigley' will be shown on Channel 4 in early December