Shrigley delights in sarcastic art talk
A crowd of students, faculty and members of the public sat in Pollack pointing at a screen up front and laughing on a Sunday afternoon. This was not a stand-up routine or a movie showing. Rather, the audience was cracking up in the Pollack Fine Arts Teaching Center with David Shrigley. Shrigley’s artist talk was full of sardonic punchlines. Many art talks delve into artistic theory and interpretation. Shrigley mentioned these themes — mostly to make ironic, humorous jabs — but in his own words, “much of this talk is about nothing in particular.”
In between anecdotes about a small robot he had programmed to draw circles to make abstract paintings, a holiday card he made with the greeting “Santa eats babies” and a rejected Gmail advert that followed an anthropomorphic square being violently shaved into a circle by other circles, Shrigley elaborated on his work for the Rose Art Museum.
Shrigley’s exhibit, “David Shrigley: Life Model II,” features what the Rose Art Museum’s website describes as a “caricatured sculpture of a nine-foot-tall woman.” Shrigley explained that the idea for the exhibit grew from a Manchester show about art therapy. The exhibit’s previous iteration was shown in Ireland. It featured a male-looking sculpture that was rigged to stream water into a bucket at its feet so that the model looked like it was urinating. Shrigley noted that he wanted to include similar animatronic aspects in the Rose’s model, but since the Rose’s model is female-looking, he found that making the sculpture “pee” was less convenient. Instead, the new model blinks.
The audience seemed to realize that it was okay to laugh at this particular art talk when Shrigley started talking about his commercial work. Shrigley showed an animated TV ad he made for Pringle of Scotland, a posh U.K. brand focusing on cashmere sweaters and cardigans. Shrigley’s video was well-animated and interesting. It used bright colors, accented its subjects with thick black outlines and included soothing voiceover. It was also intensely self-deprecating.
The Pringles of Scotland ad used graphic descriptions and simply but beautifully illustrated animations to imply that Pringles of Scotland’s business practices were ethically suspect at best. A voiceover walked viewers through the process of making sweaters, explaining that the company cleaned wool by putting goats into washing machines and manually picked bugs off of the clean wool. In addressing its competition, the ad illustrated how Pringles knocks out its competitors by bombing their production factories. The ad also implied that the company used to rely on grandma-powered slave labor to knit its sweaters and only recently switched to a machine-based method of production. The ad’s humorous nature made it unlikely that viewers would take the ad’s content as fact. But nonetheless, making and receiving payment for an ad so blatantly (if humorously) jeering seems like a task few besides Shrigley could pull off.
Shrigley’s art’s characteristic blend of simple images and text, neither of which illustrates the other, are reminiscent of meme culture and Tumblr-like sardonic imagery. Shrigley’s “Not Exact” ad for the Fiat 500 portrayed a crudely drawn car with two wheels beside it, each of them labeled “wheel.” The rest of the ad consisted of text describing the car. One might expect the text to frame the car as reliable, a good buy, safe or a number of other distinctly positive qualities. Instead, Shrigley’s text noted that the car had “2 eyes at the front, 2 eyes at the back, 5 wheels, 2 doors, and 1 thingy.” Shrigley described the car with a series of distantly-relevant phrases, such as “runs on pop,” “bean on toast,” “grown from a tiny seed” and “stolen by a spaceship and only recently returned.”
In this way, the ad mimics a popular meme (or maybe the meme mimics the popular ad) where users add distantly-relevant descriptive text to pictures of their favorite celebrities, often describing them in nonsensical terms the way Shrigley describes the Fiat.
This unusual humor exhibits another way that Shrigley’s art exists outside of traditional notions of what art should address, just as his talk balked at the traditional notions of how an artist’s discussions should be structured and which tones they should strike.
Shrigley’s exhibit is on view at the Rose Art Museum until Dec. 11.