The humour of David Shrigley’s ink sketches and installations is a Trojan horse for deeper ruminations. By Ronnie Scott.

David Shrigley behind the lines

The National Gallery of Victoria at Southbank is not all that hard to find. This summer, however, prospective visitors have an additional tool: a sign on the water wall at the gallery’s entrance that helpfully, if illiterately, reads EXIBITION.

The sign duly announces the presence of David Shrigley. It does much of what the artist does best. It presents information that is genuinely useful: the gallery is staging an exhibition. It plays on redundancy and omission: of course there’s an exhibition, but whose? And it grazes macro-questions about art – its sanctity, its seriousness – while mostly just making you giggle.

Life and Life Drawing, showing until March 1, is Shrigley’s first major Australian survey, which is on some level surprising. Shrigley, a tall Glaswegian in his mid-40s, is a recent Turner Prize finalist. He has directed a Blur video, collaborated with David Byrne and published dozens of books. His art has appeared weekly in The Guardian for nearly a decade. When Max Delany, senior curator of contemporary art at the NGV, offhandedly calls him “one of the great contemporary philosophers”, it feels only a bit hyperbolic.

Yet despite plentiful evidence of Shrigley’s renown, his work always feels small-scale and personal. Funny art often feels personal: the artist carefully assembles the joke, but it snaps together in the mind of the viewer. But even when Shrigley is not being humorous, his work feels human.

Shrigley is best known for his black-and-white drawings, scrawled in his unmistakable hand. The show crams a couple of very wide walls with inkjet prints of these drawings. This treatment, inkjet and cramming, suits the drawings, which feel spontaneous and generally are. The pictures he drew to accompany this piece, for instance, were all done on the plane trip over. “Work like this I tend to do over a condensed period of time,” explains Shrigley. He is wearing a pair of fluorescent sneakers he impulse-purchased before flying to Melbourne, and quickly regretted. He’s been here a week, but they look very clean. “I have a certain amount of paper that I just try and cover, and I don’t really think about it too much. I often write a list of things to draw but it’s just a starting point.” On a good day, he will make about 30 drawings, and retain fewer than 10. “So the editing is part of it. They look like what they are, but there’s a lot of other things that don’t make it.”

Shrigley doesn’t mind being called a cartoonist, but none of his creative touchstones are from cartoons or comics. He cites instead Duchamp and Warhol. One of the animated films shown in Life and Life Drawing, called Sleep, is a homage to the latter. As well as films and drawings, the exhibition contains sculptures and installations – as well as a fully operational general store, which is in fact a commission. But Shrigley’s distinctive aesthetic, lo-fi and scribbly, carries across into work that’s been welded, or programmed (there are robotic heads involved), or cast in bronze.

This sense of Shrigleyness extends to the centrepiece, a piece called Life Model, which is largely produced – or perpetuated – by its audience. Life Model is a sculpture of a man, surrounded by chairs, which are ideally filled with people drawing the sculpture. The drawings are then exhibited as part of the work, so that gradually the walls surrounding the sculpture will fill with contributions by the NGV’s visitors.

Shrigley likes Life Model because it changes. “It’s an artwork that begets more artwork,” he says. “And it took me a while to figure out what was the artwork and what wasn’t. For commercial galleries, the artwork is always what they get to sell.” Life Model was first shown in 2012; in a previous instance, one gallery asked if it could sell the participants’ drawings.

Delany likes Shrigley’s work for its direct, deadpan quality, a tone that is shared by the artist. On sculpture versus drawing: “Once you start having a show in a larger space, you need to fill that space somehow. So these things are how I fill the space.” At one stage, walking through the half-assembled exhibition, he describes a video thusly: “Here’s a film I made, it’s called Light Switch. It’s of a hand that switches a light on and off.” This is accurate.

The show also includes a row of oversized eggs, all marked with the word “egg”, which he has shown several times in the past four years, always configured differently. Here, the eggs are installed on a particular set of shelves because the NGV happened to have them on hand. Shrigley says, “I always favour efficiency.”

This could be the reason Shrigley is attracted to humour – which is an efficient delivery service for serious art. Take Life Model. The sculpture at its heart is a strange-looking person, a self-consciously “bad” representation. And so Shrigley is asking viewers to make representative art of a poor rendering of a person. Meanwhile, the sculpture occasionally blinks, and periodically pees into a bucket. This detail means to be funny, but also to add to the work’s strange, short-circuited sense of reality. However unrealistic, the sculpture does purport to be “something that is animate, but trying to be as inanimate as possible. So for me, that’s conceptually interesting, albeit in an absurd way.” The fact it produces a by-product of “silliness” is itself of interest to Shrigley.

Life Model is a small part of what’s billed as a “comprehensive exhibition”, but it’s also the thematic epicentre. Structuring the show around a single work was important to both Delany and Shrigley. To avoid tracing the same territory as Shrigley’s popular books, the catalogue not only focuses on Life Model, but aims to echo its form, inviting 12 like-minded artists to comment.

Shrigley is obsessed by narrative, both within individual works and in their collective presentation: “I like the installation to have a certain lyrical element to it,” he says, and has designed the space accordingly. But he is also pleased the show is called Life and Life Drawing. “That’s sort of a catch-all.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "Behind the lines".

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Ronnie Scott is the founder of The Lifted Brow and author of the forthcoming novel The Adversary.

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