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The National 2019: New Australian Art features work by 70 contemporary Australia-based artists split across three venues: the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) (29 March–21 July 2019), as curated by Isobel Parker Philip, curator of photographs at AGNSW; Daniel Mudie Cunningham,...

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Ocula Conversation

David Shrigley in Conversation

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers Auckland 18 March 2015
David Shrigley. Image courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

The celebrated Glasgow-based artist David Shrigley has recently come to the end of a month-long international residency at Auckland’s Two Rooms gallery. The Turner Prize nominee is widely know for his simple, comic-style line drawings that explore the drolleries of everyday life. After working on an extensive survey show at the National Gallery of Victoria, Shrigley decided to take on a different project for the Two Rooms residency: sixteen vibrant-hued oil-paintings. Ocula caught up with the artist just as he was leafing through a large stack of the drawings for which he has garnered somewhat of a cult following.

You’ve just finished a month long residency at Two Rooms here in Auckland where you worked on a series of fairly large-scale oil paintings. This makes a bit of a change to your paper-based works. What interested you in traditional oils? Was it a chance to experiment or play around with a new medium?

I don’t think I can say exactly why…I like having a project, something to do for a specific show, rather than showing something that is already made. I thought it would be nice to make some work over a period of time—to have a set of materials and I sort of fill up a given space.

And I just wanted to make some oil paintings because I haven’t made any since I was at art school. My studio that I have at home isn’t quite appropriate for that—it’s a bit too dusty and dirty. So, this was the opportunity.

So, you set up a project where you would work on these paintings over the course of the residency and then exhibit all of them in a roughly chronological order. Working on these paintings over a longer stretch must’ve been quite different from your drawings that, I imagine, are more immediate, more quick-fire?

The thing about oil paint versus working on paper, which is what I normally do, is that with oil paint you can go back to it and keep working on it…This was, in some sense, quite challenging for me. I set up the canvasses in a way that I was constantly looking at them all the time, whereas normally I’ll make a drawing, like this for example, and it just goes in a box and it’s finished. Whereas you can’t do that with wet oil paint.

And I presume that you don’t actually keep or show all of these drawings…

Yeah, I edit the drawings a lot, so that’s the critical difference, I suppose. The paintings I don’t edit it at all because they cost a lot of money to make on canvas.

I’ve only got sixteen of them and I have a show to do, so I can’t really edit. It’s unlike the drawings where I’m completely free to do whatever I like and I quite often throw seventy percent of them away.

Exhibition view, David Shrigley, Oil Paintings, 2015, at Two Rooms, Auckland

Has this been quite a departure for you? I know you’ve made some significant sculptural pieces and object-based works, also some acrylic paintings, but will drawing always remain the focus?

I like drawing. I’ve made a lot of books over the years and it’s a quite a familiar thing—a comfortable thing for me that’s very easy to produce. I quite like shifting between media because, I don’t know…it just means that I don’t get bored. I’m not really one of those people that wants to be a master of anything in particular. Certainly not craft-wise, anyway.

The thing about working on paper, is that you can still chuck at least half of them away because paper’s sort of cheap. Whereas the canvas, y’know, they’re too expensive and too time-consuming and too space-consuming to start throwing away. It just becomes really impractical. Knowing that you have to keep them all changes things, to a certain extent.

But making these paintings has been really enjoyable, I really feel like I would do some more, definitely. I like the fact that they look like ‘paintings’. They are paintings, obviously…But I’m happy that they look like the kind of oil paintings that I’m interested in….there’s a certain seduction, there’s an appeal to oil paint, something quite visceral. There’s also a sort of myth making that goes with painting as this special ‘thing.’ In a way, that’s why I have always worked on paper. I’m just not interested in that aspect of painting, because it too easily becomes a product to sell and it suddenly becomes precious and there’s so much history of painting that somehow you have to acknowledge…

But I always want to learn something about what I’m doing and this residency did present an opportunity to explore a different medium and explore what you can do with ‘that’ versus what you do with ‘this.’

Exhibition view, David Shrigley, Oil Paintings, 2015, at Two Rooms, Auckland

Just trawling the internet today, I noticed that your work is often described as acerbic or childlike. I don’t know quite how well these terms express what you’re actually doing. The content of the drawings and paintings seems to tend toward a kind of existentialism, a kind-hearted existentialism perhaps.

Well, I don’t know…I think I would be deceiving you if I said there was any kind of strategy where the work is about this or about that, because it really isn’t. It is very intuitively rendered…I just sort of respond to a context. In this case, I’ve got these canvasses and I’m making some paintings, and I’ve never really made paintings in this manner before.

There’s almost nothing that’s very figurative in them, unlike the drawings. Maybe one or two are, but for the most part they’re just sort of shapes with text—all my works have text. I’m always thinking about trying to say as little as I can. There is a certain economy in the language that is important.

That’s what I like about your drawings. They’re difficult to ‘deconstruct’ in the ugly sense of the word—you can’t really cut one in half to see how it works. It is what it is, and nothing more. There’s something quite perfect in that.

Yes, there isn’t any illusion or context that isn’t immediately apparent in the way that they communicate.

And you seemed to have maintained this kind of economy with the paintings?

What makes me quite happy is that when I came up with the premise for the show—I’ve got oils on canvas, an art shop over the road, a clean space and it’s all very practical and I’m just going to see what happens—I sort of thought it could actually be quite challenging. Maybe a bit stressful, really, having to make a show where you have to include every painting you’ve made.

But, in the end, I always think as long as it’s not shite then it’s alright. And it’s been an alright show. Quite interesting, I think, especially if you know the premise. —[O]

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