As an artist, David Shrigley is often overlooked due to the playful nature of his work. He is perhaps best known for his prolific collection of crudely drawn cartoons, which have been published in newspapers and magazines internationally. He graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1991, and since then his drawings, photographs and sculptures have been exhibited in galleries worldwide. The unaccustomed eye might dismiss the studied carelessness of his drawings as ‘low’, even naïve art. However, his work is simultaneously humorous and profound, behind this veil of child-like cartoons hides a scathing criticism of the absurdity of the contemporary art world and also profound confrontations with mortality.
Among the most deceptively serious of his works is a taxidermy dog holding a placard, which declares the blaringly obvious statement ‘I’m Dead’. This work provokes sobering, secular musings on life after death. By confronting us with the simplistic, disyllabic statement, ‘I’m Dead’ and the shell of a once-animated being, Shrigley seems to be telling us that the corpse encapsulates all there is to death. The use of taxidermy in his work aligns Shrigley with his contemporaries; Maurizio Cattalan, Thomas Grünfeld and Danielle van Ark to name a few.
Perhaps the most famous of Shrigley’s artistic contemporaries to use taxidermy in their work is Damien Hirst who, arguably, deals with the medium and concept much less effectively than Shrigley does in his sculpture, ‘I’m Dead’. The domesticity of the stuffed animal in this piece invokes an intimate confrontation with death. In my opinion, his confrontation is much more profound than what we experience while studying Hirst’s, ‘The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living’. The grandiosity of the subject in this work considerably detracts from the underpinning message of the piece. In fact, aside from in the title, Hirst seems to entirely evade the issue of mortality. In contrast, Shrigley’s piece masks the profundity of the concept behind its darkly humorous veneer.
Although it is imperative to see beyond the black comedy of Shrigley’s work in order to fully comprehend the gravitas of his message, the overlying humour is integral to the message he is sending. He summarizes his opinions of the Art world in his 2007 cartoon ‘Crap’, in which two figures survey a large construction that spells out the title and declare “it’s brilliant”. However, such satirical critiques on what we call art have become hypocritical. Shrigley has branded himself as an outsider of the art world, yet he has had solo exhibitions across Europe and the United States – is he really in a position to mock his peers? In his comic reanimation of dead animals, Shrigley satirizes ‘serious’ artistic attempts to comprehend death. In fact, his work seems to be obsessed with mocking his contemporaries. He criticizes the blind acceptance of conceptual art in his
cartoon, ‘Brilliant’, which is composed of a father and son looking at an artwork (which alludes heavily to Hirst’s vitrines) and the father tells his quizzical son that “it’s bloody brilliant, that’s what it is”. Essentially, through his art, Shrigley urges us to take art less seriously.
Shrigley perhaps even chooses to hide behind his comedy in order to make this commentary of his peers in an inoffensive manner. He uses humour to illustrate the common motif that runs through his work; his commentary on the absurdity of the contemporary art world. Such an injection of humour is refreshing in this often too serious industry. However, the comedic element of Shrigley’s work interferes with his acceptance as a top-flight artist. This illustrates a persistent shortcoming in the contemporary Art world, which the esteemed writer, Dave Eggers argues is the fear of “acknowledging the inherent absurdity of… sticking a urinal on a plinth and calling it art”.
This argument crystalises the message that we should take from Shrigley’s work. Shrigley is criticizing all those involved in the art world, the viewers, for blindly accepting all of the products of his contemporaries as ‘bloody brilliant’. He encourages us instead, to think for ourselves and to admit when we don’t “get” it. Similarly, Shrigley seems to be begging the art world to evolve by sifting through the rubble.
A gem lurking in this debris is Shrigley himself.