Mounted on a length of narrow steel rod supported by a splayed tripod of three narrow steel legs, Stop It presents a hand-made copy of the ubiquitous road sign ‘STOP’. Like the traditional sign that it imitates, Shrigley’s version is made of white lettering on a red octagon with a narrow border of white around the edges. However, below the word ‘STOP’, the artist has added the word ‘IT’ in smaller script, completely changing the tone of the command. The reduction in the scale of the letters ‘it’ means that the second line is not immediately readable and from a distance the sculpture appears merely a quirky artist’s version of the sign. However, once the second word becomes visible, the sign’s neutral authority is reduced to an absurd and unexpectedly personal level. The command ‘stop it’ is one normally only made to a member of one’s intimate circle – a family member, a partner, lover or, in an extreme situation, possibly a friend, and so the words immediately give the sculpture a personal voice. Referring to his use of text in his work, Shrigley has commented:
I like the fact that you can take a tiny piece of conversation, or the way somebody describes something, and use it as a quote. It can seem somehow absurd or profound whereas within the context in which it was said, it was probably just a normal piece of communication. I like the fact that you’re always guessing at the context in which it was played.
(Quoted in mono.kultur, p.16.)
In Stop It, the textual transformation of the impersonal public command into an overheard fragment of personal dialogue is emphasised by the physical characteristics of his sculpture. The sign’s low height – below that of a man – divests it of authority as the (adult) viewer will look down rather than up to read its words. Viewed formally as an object rather than as a sign, the sculpture evokes a three-dimensional stick-man, his overlarge, albeit octagonal, head mounted on a line-drawn body standing on three line-drawn legs. This anthropomorphising characteristic is a frequent tactic for bathos and humour in Shrigley’s works on paper (drawings and photographs) and in sculpture. In some works, like the photograph Fallen Tree 1996 (P79241) and the sculpture Stick 1996 (reproduced in Cruz, p.19), the artist paints eyes or line-draws simple facial features onto an inanimate object, transforming it into a being with human qualities. In other works, as in Stop It, this effect is also partially achieved through text, giving a voice to something that normally does not speak. In a sculpture made the same year, for instance, entitled Cat (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/sculpture_htmps/sculpture-07/cat.htm
), a taxidermised cat standing on its hind legs holds a placard that reads ‘I’m dead’.
The play on the relationship between public and private spheres exemplified by Stop It has been a central issue for Shrigley since he studied Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s (BA hons 91), where he became concerned with the nature and boundaries of ‘public art’. The public sign provides the perfect tool for this – through subversion and inversion. A satirical photograph that the artist exhibited in his degree show in 1991 shows an apparently ordinary motorway sign reading ‘Hell’ placed at a junction of major roads on the outskirts of Glasgow (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/hell.html
, accessed 7 February 2008). Subsequent works feature placards similarly placed in public spaces, as in Ignore this Building 1996 (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/ignore_this.html, accessed 7 February 2008), a photograph of a hand-written placard in front of a smart new concert hall in Glasgow, satirising the many signs that advertise and glorify public monuments through the personal message that commands the viewer to ‘ignore this building’. Another photograph of a sign, entitled H is for Hello, 1999 (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/h.html
, accessed 6 March 2009), shows the bare H-shaped armature that formerly supported a sign, standing by a path in a park. The words ‘This H stands for hello welcome to the park’ painted onto the central bar of the ‘H’ suggest a child’s simplistic reading of the sign. Drawing attention to the missing board that would formerly have been nailed onto the armature, the words offer a personal welcome in place of the impersonal authoritative text with which that board would have greeted visitors to the park, once again bridging the private and public spheres.
Caroline Muntendorf, ‘David Shrigley: Crooked Penmanship’, mono.kultur, no.9, December 2006/January 2007.
Amanda Cruz and Russell Ferguson, David Shrigley, exhibition catalogue, Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York 2001.