Mr. Funnyman: David Shrigley on Using His Offbeat Humor to Subvert the Very Serious Art World

David Shrigley's work is almost a laugh, and certainly a giggle. Still, when the artist suffers bouts of self-doubt over his indelicately drawn characters and their odd captions, he wonders if they are "pretentious," "a terrible idea," or merely "stupid one-liners."

"I'm not a particularly academic or intellectual person," Shrigley told ARTINFO, sipping white wine in the back room at Yvon Lambert's space in the Marais, where the British artist is presenting his biggest show so far, through August 31. "I'm always in awe of people who are very articulate, who can really contextualize any kind of idea, in a wonderful way. I think I'm more of an idiot savant."

The 202 drawings — and 12 eggs — have visitors parading along every wall of the gallery, pausing, smiling, laughing and scratching their heads at a style and wit that some will recognize from the artist's weekly cartoon in the Guardian. The simple scribbles on A-4 paper are something you would expect to be child's play to comprehend, but Shrigley twists anticipation, inverts context, and reveals humanity's tantrums and imperfections, throwing an oddly intuitive curveball at the safe expectations of ordinary life.

"It's a bit autistic, this authorial voice which treats things that are really important as being not at all important, and things that, conventionally speaking, are not important, as being of massive importance," said Shrigley, never flinching in his self-deprecating humility, accompanied by a wry smirk and calm, staccato phrasing reminiscent of a lighter version of Ricky Gervais in "The Office." "Everything is sort of skewed, but also on the same level: life and death are viewed through the same lens of importance as incredibly trivial things, like cutting your toenails."

Shrigley's outlook is not quite sardonic, but torn between highlighting failures of logic or introducing surreal addenda to imagined scenes. A dinosaur looks toward the sound of a police car. A simple fisherman is labeled a "drug dealer." An elephant on a psychiatrist's couch is told, "You must go to the mental hospital."

Eggs are the newcomers: a dozen ceramic creations, crudely labeled, are perched on plinths between the drawings. "Eggs are very symmetrical, for the most part," said Shrigley. "Physically, they have to be a certain shape in order to function as eggs. Making them in a slightly cack-handed, amateur-potter way negates that, so it becomes a representation of an egg. I quite enjoy that slippage. It's not much, just a shape, but you can't even get the shape right."

The vast set of works is the most Shrigley has ever shown or produced for a single exhibition, and it is but the surviving part of the some 800 drawings that Shrigley created over three weeks of "just eating, sleeping and making these stupid drawings." He finished the intensive stint of 12-hour days with a big headache — and a large number of works relegated to the dumpster.

"Quite a lot of work gets discarded while you're trying to get to that moment, that thing which seems interesting,” said Shrigley. "The labor of it is really minimal and the energy that goes into it is incredibly cerebral. It's all inspiration and no perspiration, so the only thing that hurts, at the end of the day, is my head." Some of the rejected work — pieces of it, anyway — ended up in the book "Fragments of Torn Up Drawings," and edition of 500  published by BQ Berlin.

The interplay between Shrigley's texts and images is not necessarily a traditional relationship of illustration and description. He will start with either of the two and let the other follow from intuition — and with a dose of surprise. "It's like when you're told that something is a joke, but you hadn't realized it was a joke, and it then becomes really funny," he explained. Humor is a flexible tool in his arsenal, somewhere between attack and defense, with a splash of violence through many works. At a boxing match, a the coach calmly urges one combatant to "kill him." Soiled fingers accompany the text, "Now that you have torn out my heart you must wash your hands." A man is shot dead for wearing shorts. Even tea takes a caustically humorous pummeling, with crockery and biscuits flying in "Untitled (Fuck You and Fuck Tea Time)."

"I think that's born from needing to make myself laugh," said Shrigley. "If I find the work really funny, then it's finished and worth. But I'm obviously aware that my humor is an acquired taste, particularly as I've gotten older and it's become more and more morbid."

Shrigley remembers that his sense of humor was not appreciated at the Glasgow School of Art, from which he graduated in 1991. And some of his work still suggests a strained relationship with art's practice and conventional wisdom, like the vitrine vases of "Untitled (Museums Are Full of Crap)," the man with a bucket on his head in "Untitled (The Scream)," a pipe reminiscent of the famous Magritte icon comes with the caption "This is nothing," and the grimace of disapproval in "Untitled (The Artist Looking at His Drawing)."

"When I was at art school I wasn't very popular, because I made work that was funny, I guess," he said. "At least it was funny to me." For Shrigley, the fonts of humor include such things as the odd length of Catalan surnames as the "Strange Deaths" column in Fortean Times, the British magazine of weird news and strange phenomena.

Shrigley has since taught students in both Britain and the United States. "I look upon teaching art as being Freudian psychotherapy," he said. "The patients have to heal themselves, while you provide an environment, and perhaps a means for the art students, in this case, to heal themselves, teach themselves and do their own thing. There's no obviously right or wrong, just success and failure."

It never hurts to prod a bit, so Shrigley's studio tutorials go something like this, if there is anything figurative in the student's work. A silence falls and then:

Shrigley: "Is that supposed to be you?"

Art Student: "Oh, no, no."

Shrigley: "So who is it?"

The Art Student: "It's nobody, nobody."

Shrigley: "It's nobody?"

The Art Student: "I mean, it could be somebody."

"I quite like that, being mean to 20-year-old artists," the occasional professor admitted.

Shritgley's main concern nowadays, however, is the shrinking length of his writing. His captions have become shorter and shorter over the years, stunted by the time and effort it takes to even find the single word that will add to — or subtract from — the meaning of each drawing. "I always think that I'm not that good because I can't tell a longer story," he said. "I hope its not symptomatic of being lazy or wanting to do something that's easy."

A new project might be the cure: Shrigley is, "bizarrely enough," taking a stab at opera with "Pass the Spoon," which he is writing to music by composer David Fennessy for a November premiere at Glasgow's Tramway. Set around a TV show about cooking, two chefs are preparing a meal for a guest with cast members playing ingredients, from a banana to condiments singing about soup. "It's essentially a play that is sung, with jarring and very punctuated modern classical music," said Shrigley. "If you acted it, it would be about 40 minutes long, which is very long for me."