David Shrigley’s work is funny, there’s no doubting that, whether it be sculpture, illustration, animation or simply the written word. For even when you’re not certain you get the joke, or if indeed it even is a joke, his simple sketches will make you smirk. Which is perhaps the British artist’s intention: as he has said, ‘I think the best kind of humour is the kind of humour where you don’t quite understand what you’re laughing at – you intuitively know that there’s something there that’s both funny and ‘other’.’
And Shrigley’s art is often exactly that, somewhat ‘other.’ Slapstick comedy and obvious gags, much like the canned laughter on a TV show, aren’t Shrigley’s style – his work is instead dysfunctional, subtle, relatable and sometimes downright weird, being both dark and witty, addressing human nature with all its insecurities and fears, and with a healthy dose of randomness thrown in for good measure. For him, ‘everything should be humorous on some level. Every part of our understanding of the world needs to a humorous one.’ And that is exactly what the artist provides – a take on society that we nervously recognise.
Which is why perhaps the artist, whose career spans some thirty years, prefers not to have to explain his works: ‘I make work that is image and text, it doesn’t really need any explanation.’ But that’s not to say his work has a straightforward meaning. It doesn’t. ‘Your response is the correct response to the work, whatever that may be or whatever my intention was. My intentions are never that plain. It is what it is.’
When asked if the key to his success is his democratic humour – the feeling that we’re all in on the joke – he says: “The works are meant to be funny, so in that way, everyone is involved. If my main task was just to make people laugh, then I’d be a comedian. You have to make the work for yourself.” The artist doesn't shy away from sensitive topics and expresses himself in a crude, but honest way. He breaks down concepts to their simplest form and in doing this, elaborates their meanings and narratives. For Shrigley, it’s about the idea and not just settling for one definition, but looking at the range of possibilities. He is an artist who thrives on experimentation.
Shrigley's commitment to his work has very much paid-off, both financially and in terms of respect. His works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, as well as in many others. He was nominated for the Turner prize in 2013 for his solo show Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery, and his bronze sculpture, Really Good, of a massive thumbs up with a disproportionately long thumb, was displayed on the prestigious fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016. And he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in the 2020 New Year Honours for services to visual arts. His works in general sell in the thousands – and he works tirelessly, entertaining himself as he creates piece after piece, as well as making the viewer smile. For a daily dose of his wit, his Instagram is well worth following.
And if it hadn’t panned out? Well, as Shrigley has observed, ‘Humour is very important in life ... If you can amuse yourself, that’s the best thing.’ And that he very definitely can do. It’s our good luck that he entertains us too.