David Shrigley



Graphite on paper
Support: 298 x 208 mm
image: 298 x 208 mm
frame: 365 x 278 x 38 mm
Purchased using funds provided by the 2006 Outset / Frieze Art Fair Fund to benefit the Tate Collection 2007


This untitled image is a simple line drawing made using pencil on white paper. It shows a man in a small boat aiming a rifle at a seal’s head that sticks up out of the water nearby. The drawing is composed of a mixture of geometric and organic lines that give the maximum amount of information using the minimum amount of marks with a cartoon’s efficiency. At the top right, a full circle, created by drawing around a circular object, represents a sun or full moon. Below it, a series of five horizontal lines ruled across the page using a straight implement such as a ruler delineate near, mid and far grounds in a watery landscape. In the far distance, three peaks drawn with a single zig-zag line suggest a small island or rocky outcrop on the horizon line that bisects the page in two. Two similar larger triangular forms on the line below evoke rocks or a landmass emerging from the water in the middle distance. The drama of the image is played out in the foreground where three shorter lines represent the water’s surface. Like the rocks in the distance, the man and the seal are crudely drawn but there is sufficient information to give the image a strong affective impact. This is all in the tension between the depersonalised hunter and the humanly expressive seal. An eyeless blob with two strong dark lines where his features should be and some rough lines for his hair, the man’s head surmounts his rifle, pointed out over the end of the boat, as he leans aggressively forward. By contrast the seal appears friendly, passively looking up out of the water at his killer. Shown in profile, the seal gazes at the man with a large dark eye, while its mouth is turned down in a sad expression.

Cruelty towards the vulnerable is a frequent theme in Shrigley’s work, whether it is a drawing as in this work or, as in Untitled, 1998 (T12366), a piece of text. The outlandish quirkiness of his subject matter introduces a strong element of the ridiculous, alleviating the darkness of the moral issues raised in his works with humour. Compact vignettes drawn or written in a naïve child-like style, Shrigley’s works open up terrains of private reflection and possible narratives. He has commented:

In a story there has to be something unusual, violent, something not mundane in any way. I think storytelling is good for my mental health, my state of mind, as all subjects that I touch upon come down to one kind of felt frustration or another, some latent anger ... I am very aware that the stories I tell in a drawing or in a page of text are ways of forming a narrative, whereby you just give people the most basic parts. In the best case, the readers form the rest of the narratives themselves ... I suppose holding back information works like a catalyst. Sometimes you only have to say a certain amount and it captures the imaginations of people. If you need to describe everything, tell the story in full, then you’re probably not telling it very well.

(Quoted in Muntendorf, p.15.)

Shrigley has cited the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte (1898–1967) and the American writer Donald Barthelme (1931–89) as important influences on his work. Magritte’s paintings present a window into a world that is both familiar and strange at the same time as emphasising the representational nature of art. Barthelme is known primarily for short stories that often focus on a single incident rather than an extended narrative. In the same way, Shrigley’s works either literally or verbally draw a picture that is the starting point for an imaginative journey. He has explained: ‘I think each drawing I make is a narrative that you read top to bottom, left to right, and it’s all there. It’s contained, you have the pacing – the delivery of the message is all there in that structure.’ (Quoted in Williams, p.2.)

Further reading:
Caroline Muntendorf, ‘David Shrigley: Crooked Penmanship’, mono.kultur, no.9, December 2006/January 2007.
‘David Shrigley: Interview by Maxwell Williams, 2005’,

, accessed 22 April 2008.

Elizabeth Manchester
April 2008