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art and self-restraint: the work of david shrigley

I laughed a little when I found this drawing on the website for David Shrigley, a Glasgow-based artist.

There’s not much to it, but for some reason it’s funny. Also a little unsettling. I realized I was laughing not so much because it’s comedic (though it might be) but because it’s absurd. There’s hardly anything in the drawing, yet it succeeds as a complete work, whole in itself: are we being watched? Should we be afraid that we’re being watched? Should we laugh at the fact that we’re afraid of being watched? Shrigley could have included more in the way of subject – the figure of a person, a building – but would doing so have improved the work itself? He must not have thought so. And I agree, though I’m still intrigued by the reason why he must not have thought so.

Terms like ‘minimalism’ can be inadequate because of their tendency to collapse the complexities of individual works into one brand, or genre. But they can be useful too. I want to describe Shrigley’s drawing as an example of minimalism because doing so helps me form a question that otherwise might lack context: what is the relationship between minimalism and self-restraint?

The reason I ask that question is this: when I look at Shrigley’s drawing, I’m struck by the impression that he was inordinately conscious of the markings he was making on the paper with his pen; inordinately, in comparison to artists who aren’t working in the minimalist vein.  Whether this impression is accurate, I can’t say; I don’t think it’s true across the board; I’m convinced that all artists are conscious, at some level, of the choices they’re making, that they’re always discriminating.  Yet I imagine Shrigley thinking, ‘should I stop now? or now? or now?’ as if his conscious mind was more ready to censor – to restrain himself – than the minds of more lavish, full-blooded kinds of artists.  Perhaps he wasn’t thinking this at all. Perhaps the drawing is the result of a quick, offhanded sketch he only realized later was a finished work, in need of nothing more.  Or perhaps it’s the result of some other thought process I haven’t imagined.  Still, its minimalism evokes for me the idea of restraint as an artistic virtue.

The artist who restrains himself too much is, no doubt, self-defeating.  In the context of fiction, Lily Hoang recently described the benefit of doing the opposite – of “over-writing.”  Matthew Simmons, in the same spirit, writes, “Pile on the muck until the muck becomes the point and the muck becomes the beauty.”  Good advice, I think.  A wonderful thing about art: you can dramatize truth in opposite ways.

Here are some more drawings by Shrigley:


3 thoughts on “art and self-restraint: the work of david shrigley

  1. To me, Shrigley calls to mind the quotidian madness of George Booth, best known for his New Yorker cartoons, & a fine, strange Chicagoan who was beginning to achieve wider fame before his demons took him (suicide) a few years back, namely, Patrick Welch.

    Thanks, Edward.

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