In a world saturated with images, handwriting is a strangely private thing. Most celebrities could drop their shopping list in their local supermarket (were they to shop there) and no one would suspect it of having a famous author. David Shrigley’s handwriting, however, is instantly recognisable. Known for his scratchy drawings with deadpan captions exposing the vanity and banality of contemporary life, Shrigley had major exhibitions in 2012 at London’s Hayward Gallery and Manchester’s Cornerhouse and was nominated for the Turner Prize the following year. Those who have never set foot in an art gallery may have received a Shrigley greeting card, seen his newspaper cartoons, his music videos for Blur or Bonnie Prince Billy or his wry animation for the clothing brand Pringle. In 2016, his comically elongated bronze thumbs-up, “Really Good”, will occupy the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square – one of the most prominent public spots for a contemporary artwork.
Shrigley’s latest project is the “gallery restaurant” at Sketch in London, a converted Georgian townhouse with lavish bars and two restaurants. In 2012, Martin Creed designed the interior of the gallery restaurant, the first in a series of collaborations with visual artists. Creed gave the room a coloured marble floor and an eclectic mix of tables, chairs and crockery.
Shrigley’s design, with monochrome plates and framed drawings neatly lining the walls, is quieter and, for me, more successful. Designer India Mahdavi’s furniture resembles that of an old-fashioned brasserie, or even a ladies’ powder room, with dusky pink velvet upholstery and low lighting. It creates a sense of almost womb-like security that is broken when you look at Shrigley’s drawings. One shows a hand stirring the contents of a pan labelled “SHIT”, another a neatly wrapped present, the caption reading “DEAD RODENT”. Even the salt and pepper shakers are branded “DUST” and “DIRT” – with a third, empty one for “NOTHING”.
Shrigley’s brief was straightforward yet challenging. “You have to make an artwork in a functioning restaurant that has to not impede the function of that restaurant but also be an artwork,” he explains. He looks pleased by the way the circularity of his sentence neatly describes the trap inherent in the commission. In his speech, as in his work, Shrigley handles words carefully: text and image reverberate in his drawings, enriching then undercutting one another.
Shrigley has always made art for non-gallery settings. He studied environmental art at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s, an influential course with an emphasis on site-specific work. “I really enjoyed art school but I didn’t do very well,” he says. “They all thought I wasn’t taking it seriously, but I was. They just didn’t think I was a very talented artist.” When his Hayward show opened, there was much debate over whether his work was art or merely cartoons. Shrigley’s apparent unconcern, telling one interviewer “it’s not the kind of drawing where you’re trying to get their eyes in the right place”, didn’t help.
But though his drawings are wonky – the term “cack-handed” recurs in reviews – he considers himself a serious conceptual artist. He is a ruthless self-editor, destroying most of what he produces; the 239 new drawings he made for Sketch were chosen from some 800. The apparent scrappiness of his style, it seems to me, is a way of making a point. Aren’t the glamorous diners at Sketch supposed to see in Shrigley’s “wibbly-wobbly” teapots their own imperfections, physical and otherwise? When we buy the latest iPhone we are buying a polished vision of a better world; when we laugh at a Shrigley drawing, it is with a grim recognition of our failings, absurdity, smallness.
Shrigley himself might not like this interpretation. “My style – as it were – is just a means to an end,” he insists. “It’s just a vehicle to communicate what I want to communicate as quickly and as economically as possible. I’m just not interested in ‘style’ at all,” he makes speech marks in the air. “I’m not interested in any kind of artifice.” This strikes me as an odd thing to say, especially given that Shrigley is sitting in a cane-backed throne against the faux woodland backdrop of Sketch’s “glade bar” (all the bars here resemble elaborate stage sets).
Sketch’s proprietor Mourad Mazouz has described the Shrigley-designed restaurant as a “magical space.” But isn’t magic anathema to Shrigley’s work, so resolutely grounded in the grit of the everyday? As Will Self writes in his introduction to Shrigley’s 1998 book Why We Got the Sack from the Museum: “The most fundamental – and the most difficult – task for the creative artist is to get their audience to suspend disbelief. David Shrigley doesn’t even try to do this.”
I ask Shrigley if he is poking fun at Sketch’s patrons. “The work does touch upon dining and the dining experience”, he says, “but my work is about the human experience, anyway, so there is a lot of eating, sleeping, dying, being born.” His work operates on a more specific level, too. His animation “Light Switch” references his Sketch predecessor, Creed, with its long finger incessantly turning a light on and off – surely the demented operator of Creed’s Turner Prize-winning installation “Work No. 227”.
Is he mocking contemporary art? “Sometimes,” he concedes, “but I’m not really taking the piss out of someone else: I’m taking the piss out of my own activity as an artist.” So can contemporary art, so often steeped in irony and self-reference, offer any kind of transcendence? “Yes, definitely,” he replies, suddenly serious. “Art is essentially an optimistic, hopeful thing.” I ask what he means. “Laughter is synonymous with hope – and I offer that. When you go and see a stand-up who’s really good, for that hour or so it’s really liberating, life-affirming, joyous. My work isn’t really like that – it’s not that funny.” He pauses for a moment. “But, you know, it shouldn’t be just about that. You also want to think about things and understand things.”
For all their crude execution, Shrigley’s drawings are more ambitious, more philosophical even, than the work of those he’s compared to – less straightforwardly funny than cartoons, yet far easier to relate to than most conceptual art.