This week, my creative practice experimented with David Shrigley’s approach to creating single-panel cartoons, where he creates images and words in response to his lists of art prompts. For example, here with presumably ‘thread’ and ‘dogs’,
(See lots of examples of Shrigley’s work at Instagram @davidshrigley and www.davidshrigley.com)
David Shrigley is renowned in the UK for being a Turner prize-winning artist, but he also self-describes as a ‘cartoonist’ (2020), so I think it is permissible to connect him to cartooning. This also provides the positive advantage for my work because Shrigley inspires respect, while funnies and commercial cartoonists are dismissed. This was humorously framed by my doctoral supervisor as ‘The Shrigley Test’ recently (it is wonderfully ironic that Shrigley would probably fail his own test as a lover of cartooning).
In my Shrigley experiment, I worked with a list created for Instagram by ‘@februllage2021’ which was designed to promote collage in response to prompts this February. I like the idea of working with prompts developed by other people to remove influence on the subject matter. This turned out to be a hiding into nothing, as my own interests and life experiences can be witnessed throughout the results. Perhaps creators cannot escape from themselves and all work is autobiographical in the end?
This example illustrates a comment from one of my drawing compadres in the ‘Sketchy Bitches’ online group in our Sunday session, where she created a zine called ‘Hair is Everything.’ At the time, I thought that this was an anodyne assertion, but now I think it possesses a nice levity that counters the gravity of lockdown life,
To help me channel Shrigley’s approach, I noted some commonalities in my collected favourites and compiled a list:
- Always the present tense (or close future ‘will’)
- Tends to use pronouns: I, you, and we. He talks to ‘you’ with the never said, the difficult and the personal.
- He uses incongruity with unexpected opposites and counters (light vs. dark, kind vs cruel)
- He channels flawed humanity in reflections of social media, the petty, the vainglorious, and the idiot.
- Statements of the obvious (stale biscuits / we should not have eaten them)
- There is pity for the inanimate
- There are unlikely requests (would you like a glass of this awful wine?)
- Respect for nature (we do not have control)
- ‘Beige’ reactions to the extreme
This list provided a useful reference for playing with ideas, and when I couldn’t think of an idea, I worked up and down the list. For students, it would be a good idea to get them to notice the workings first and create their own list of resonances.
On Monday, I drafted up 22 ideas in one sitting from my own mind and the Shrigley list above. (The prompts unfulfilled were, house, jungle, zebra, leaves, spooky, and feathers. I’m still working on resolving house, jungle and leaves).
What I particularly enjoyed about this process was its easy generative productivity. Shrigley’s own imagery works quickly and he isn’t concerned with realistic representation or even neatly fitting his captions within the panels. This gives you permission not to worry about perspective or balance. I enjoyed not managing to fit the words in, as more Shrigley-esque, and also drew a Shrigley-style ‘ugly’ man and two penises! This felt both appropriate and liberating, here are two examples:
Journalist Cooper (2006) describes Shrigley’s work as ‘one-liners born of Zen haiku absurdism’ – this comment fascinatingly links together my love of zen, poetry, and humour as ‘controlled absurdity’. Cooper does not define or enlarge on what he means in his article by ‘zen haiku absurdism’, so I have been vaguely thinking about this since last October. This week, I’ve decided Cooper is correct with a fusion of ideas from reading and talking about zen, and from directly exploring and channelling Shrigley’s approach. Here is a simple bullet-list of reasons why Shrigley’s work is close to zen for me:
- It is based in the present
- It avoids overthinking in both word and image
- He responds with calm and acceptance (to the extreme and unreasonable)
- He illustrates (and liberates us) from false human problems
Famous zen writer, Alan Watts, notes that zen and jokes are similar, ‘A joke is told with the object of making you laugh. It is not an intellectual thing. It is an emotional reaction, and the point is the emotional reaction’ (Watts 2015). For this reason, explaining zen or jokes is a pointless and absurd practice, which is captured in many zen stories including my favourite (for its violent anti-hierarchy!):
Zen master: What is this? [proffering a stick]
Student: A stick.
Zen master: No, what is this?
Student 2: [Takes the stick from the master and hits him with it]
Zen Master: That is the correct answer.
‘A joke and a zen story produce an ‘a-ha’! I see now, it is clear. Their design is not to impart information, but to get rid of something. To get rid of a false problem with which you are wrestling, so that the problem will disappear as a result of understanding the story’ (Watts 2015)
Shrigley is masterful at elucidating false problems for the modern human in his visual zen haiku or cartoons. His images connect us to mini-narratives that explore the absurdity of the human condition, but he also does this with kind zen calm and humour.
Cooper, N (2006) for MAP magazine, available at:
https://mapmagazine.co.uk/david-shrigley-top-drawer (accessed 26.10.2020)
Shrigley, David (2020) Are we on air? Episode 29, David Shrigley, available at:
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/are-we-on-air/id1509599164?i=1000493449505 (accessed 12.02.2021)
Watts, A (2015) The Way of Zen. Macmillan Audiobook.
Watt, A (1985) The Way of Zen. USA: Vintage.