He has been shortlisted for the Turner prize for his acerbic, often hilarious images. Now living in the countryside with his wife and dog, the artist has produced a new book – and his work is as tense and restless as ever
Cool young artists are talking about their work. “I don’t actually do the paintings myself,” says a man in a stripy jumper. He gets a bunch of kids to do them for him. A woman wearing thick lipstick and holding a cigarette describes her practice: “I use a lot of found materials in my work. My latest piece is 50 identical pairs of children’s shoes which I found in a charity shop.” Another artist tells how he bought soiled underpants from “dossers” for his latest show, while a battered youth goes around bars at the weekend and starts fights to “get my head kicked in while a friend of mine videos it”.
David Shrigley drew this in the mid-1990s. It is a devastatingly precise satire of the Young British Artists scene. It was funny then and still is. When he drew it, Shrigley had recently graduated from Glasgow School of Art with a 2:2 degree – a humiliation he can’t forget – and was working as a guide and art handler at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts.
“I saw all these other artists who were able to chat up Hans Ulrich Obrist [the renowned supercurator] when he came to town. I just couldn’t do that, and I guess I was a bit bitter about that – too shy. I thought I would never have any success as a result.”
A quarter of a century on, who is having the last laugh? Many of the young artists who were hot then are struggling now. Meanwhile, Shrigley, 54, has become an “industry”, as he puts it, selling his acerbic, hilarious, badly drawn philosophical cartoons in books and on posters and other merchandise; his latest book, Get Your Shit Together, is the first full-colour anthology of what he calls his “paintings”. Shrigley reaches people outside the narrow, money-ruled art world. Who are his fans, I wonder. Instagram analytics enable him to give an unexpectedly precise answer: “My audience is women aged between 25 and 34 in London.”
Yet the art world loves him too. He was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2013, causing perhaps the competition’s last real scandal, with a naked urinating statue.
To find out what drives this artist, at once conceptual joker and accessible cartoonist, I head for east Devon, where he has recently moved in search of pastoral peace. Meeting me at Honiton station in a car crammed with dog toys, he drives me to the seaside town of Sidmouth, past a billboard he has set up for local artists to use, to his studio, a converted flat above a shop in the high street.
Shrigley lives in the countryside in the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and drives into town to work here, at a simple drawing table. The furnishings are as spartan as one of his sketches: a table and chairs where we sit; a fridge where he is chilling a four-pack of another new Shrigley product, a beer called Toad Licker with a picture of someone licking an impassive green toad on the can; and a homemade guitar.
It is quite hard to define the essence of Shrigley’s art – until you visit his studio and realise he draws and paints all day long. Everything else is just about distributing the results – including in books. To my surprise, he didn’t edit Get Your Shit Together himself or select its images: even its title was chosen by the publisher. “Shit” wasn’t a word he expected a US publisher to put on the cover.
The reason he now “delegates” the selection of his art for books or exhibitions is, he says, that his own choice never seemed to match what people want: “The gallery would send me an inventory of all the works that were unsold and I would look at them and think: ‘I can’t believe that that painting didn’t sell. I can’t believe that that one didn’t sell … That’s brilliant, that one!’ Things that were just perfect, that represented everything I wanted to say about my existence – and the meaning, and irony thereof. But did anybody agree with me? No. No. They just wanted the ones of the cat.”
So, now, he lets other people riffle through his art and choose what they want to publish or exhibit. Including the cats.
The way Shrigley stands back from the circulation of his own art could almost make him seem cynical. But this lack of interest in its fate is the very opposite. It reflects his single-minded dedication to what really matters to him: putting pen or paint to paper.
Shrigley grew up in Leicestershire, where his dad was an electrical engineer and his mum a computer programmer. He describes it as a “modest” background, but his parents had high educational expectations. “They were probably quite unhappy when I went to art school.” He started his career in urban Glasgow and later lived in bohemian Brighton, but feels happy to have moved far from the madding crowd: “I live in a place where other people go on holiday, so that’s got to make me happy, right? And I’m married: if you can remain married that’s usually a source of happiness.” He and his wife, Kim, have been together 26 years; he portrays her as too down to earth to let him indulge in the £4,000 Rickenbacker guitars he used to “lust for”, which is why he makes his own. “And I’ve got a dog and I get on really well with my dog. So, yeah, I’m pretty content.”
It’s not like he is trapped in the English countryside either. He frequently visits Copenhagen where he has the Shrig Shop (inspired by Keith Haring’s Pop Shop), which, even though it’s “around the corner and up the alley”, acts as the physical focus of his online business. I can’t help asking if he has sampled Copenhagen’s food scene. It turns out the legendary restaurant Noma gives departing staff a Shrigley print – and in return he gets free meals there. Yes, he confirms, it is as good as people say.
He is clearly someone with good reasons to be content. Yet Shrigley’s deepest happiness appears to lie in his creativity. His drawing and painting skills are, he freely confesses, “limited”. But he loves making his marks on paper, can’t stop doing it, and has organised his life so he can sit here undisturbed, drawing and painting away.
“Just being alone in this room makes me really happy, with my paper and my paints and my pens.”
It is, in fact, a bit like being a child for ever. He sees a real analogy between what he does now and the paintings he made on sugar paper when he was five years old.
“Your attitude was: what am I going to paint right now? Dinosaur. So you paint the Tyrannosaurus rex, and then you attach some text to the image of the Tyrannosaurus rex, and usually the Tyrannosaurus rex is saying something either violent or stupid. And that’s what I did when I was five. In my mind, it’s a similar format and attitude, albeit now I’m a middle-aged man who’s read some books and stuff. Inevitably, there is some craft that seeps in there but the work isn’t going to be any better if I could draw.”
Yet there seems to be a darker edge to Shrigley’s work. Take the giant hand making an exaggerated thumbs up gesture that he put up on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth in 2016. It elicited bizarre feelgood responses, even winning praise in some quarters as a positive, can-do image of Brexit. He remembers a Women’s March being photographed by it – but also an English Defence League gathering. Surely it was a desperate, hysterical image that implied its despairing opposite? There is plenty of insidious anger or irony in his new book, too. Under a painting of different-coloured designer chairs he has written: BURN THEM ALL. On another page he has a painting of a green purse with the message: “I left my purse on the bus. If you find it please return it to me. It contains one million pounds.” A sleeping pig is offered as a role model: “Witness my contentment that you too may be content.”
Shrigley prefers to point to the formal structure of his work, and the philosophical humour it embodies. He likes to think he has a lot in common with a friend, the conceptual artist Martin Creed . Imitating him, he puts on a deliberately bad Scottish accent: “Aye, so I’ve got this hat, right, and it’s a square hat because hats aren’t square most of the time. And that’s why I wear the square hat.”
When he says he still paints as he did aged five, he doesn’t only mean he has avoided being ruined by craft skills. He is also referring to the “stupid or violent” words he would put in the creature’s mouth.
“When I’m seeing how word and image fit together – which is my thing, right? – it’s a bit like a child learning how to speak.”
One early word a child might say is “dada” – at least the poets and artists who created the 20th century’s most subversive art movement thought so. Dada, invented by the generation massacred by the first world war, rejects art itself and replaces it with brutal, sick humour. For the young Shrigley in the 70s and 80s, this was the art that mattered – or rather the anti-art: “That’s always been my influence throughout my life, ever since I first started reading about art movements when I was a teenager. I think it was the Thames & Hudson book of dada – this is probably in about 1979 – with little black and white illustrations. Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp: they were the artists I wanted to be. It was the otherness of that thought process that I was interested in.”
Otherness: maybe that’s what his drawings and their discombobulating captions really create. Leafing through his books, you encounter the grotesque, absurd and macabre and, every so often, something it is impossible to resist laughing at. It’s an estrangement of normality.
Yet my morbid desire to find the darkness in this happy character is gratified when he does finally admit to a more hidden, personal drive to his art.
“Part of the joy of doing it is the therapeutic thing: I guess I’m quite an anxious person at different times. Whilst I say I’m a pretty happy person, I’m also an introvert, and introverts often tend to be quite anxious, I think. I worry about stuff – I worry that I’ve upset people and I worry about things that are irrational. So I guess that’s the thing that I grapple with in my life, in terms of my emotional makeup, that’s something I have to deal with. I mean, I’m not a depressed person, but I think I am quite an anxious person. And a lot of the work just has this insane anxiety about it.”
In his new collection there’s a snake: “Actual size in your sleeping bag.” Another painting shows a passenger jet with a wing broken off, with the reassurance: “Plane can still fly: it’s OK.” A crowd of green eyes stare at you with the message: “Don’t be paranoid.”
I think this underlying hum of stress and fear, rather than the art theory of a century ago, is what gives his art its double-edged tension and restless energy. It is also what speaks to so many of us. Living in a chaotic world, in scary times, it’s great and joyous to have our dread reflected in art, yet also transformed into hilarity.
There’s a striking ethical turn in Get Your Shit Together, in a section where animals talk back to their human oppressors. “Deer says fuck you all,” reads the caption by a painting of a deer. “Fuck you,” it says on a cat’s tail. Shark and otter agree: “Fuck you all.” A tiger, a giraffe, a sea lion, a bee and a polar bear are more specific: “I hate human beings.”
“In recent years, I’ve become a vegetarian,” Shrigley says. “I’ve become quite militant about the natural world. I’ve gone from being an arch-meat-eater – kidneys in the Chelsea Arts Club – to bordering on a vegan. That’s happened as I’ve moved to a rural location and had a dog. Something happened in my middle age where I suddenly couldn’t face the idea of animals dying so I could eat my dinner. Not that I have any particular feelings towards sea lions.”
His vegetarianism is also reflected in a picture of a big bowl of beans (he eats lots of them). “God sees you eating your beans,” it warns. Shrigley tells me it shows “the inner monologue of the Almighty seeing you – but does he approve of you, eating your beans?”
Does he believe in God?
“Yeah. I mostly believe in God. I realise there are lots of gods. I was brought up in a Christian household. I’m not a practical Christian, but I’m from that background. I am not an atheist. Then again, I have some sympathy for Richard Dawkins. I just think that he’s sort of extracting all the interesting stuff out of life by trying to rationalise it. Existence shouldn’t be entirely rational. If all your beliefs are rational, it’s just dull. I’d love to hang out with Richard Dawkins and I’d say” – he puts on a gnomish voice – “God sees you eating your beans.”
He gives me some ice-cold Toad Licker for the train home. As the Devon countryside speeds by, he has me wondering: does God see me, sipping my grapefruit-flavoured beer?