Art isn't usually much of a laugh. For sure, there are the jokes about Van Gogh's ear (pardon?) or the reason for the Mona Lisa's smile, but in general, humour doesn't tend to be a major ingredient. And contemporary art, in recent decades, has tended to take itself very seriously indeed (go to www.timeout.com/shrigley to read an interview between David Shrigley and Dave Eggers on this subject).
Back in the 1990s, however, a number of British artists started to bring humour, and a kind of bleak, deadpan comedy, back into art-making, using the lo-fi, amateurish means of drawing and cartooning to do so. Alongside contemporaries such as Paul Noble and Adam Dant, Macclesfield-born artist David Shrigley's art operates at the cross-roads of art, absurdity and philosophy – and the result is a disconcerting, often hilariously dark take on hubris and futility, on the comedy potential of existentialist angst, failure and deflated ambition in a meaningless universe, as seen through a lens of paranoid, suburban banality. It's like Kierkegaard, only with marker pens, poster paint and crappily-made sculpture.
The pathos of failure is ever-present, but Shrigley's knack is to make it quizzically ridiculous. A cartoonish model molar tooth, like a refugee from a toothpaste commercial, here stands on the floor, riddled with holes, forlornly contemplating its own decay in a mirror.
Obsolescence and the sense of being awkwardly inappropriate abounds: massive, clumpy pairs of ceramic boots are arranged descending on a stepped plinth, unworn, unwearable and going nowhere. A very large tea cup, full of gallons of cold tea, sits there, slowly evaporating.
Shrigley's humour flows from the sense that even grandiose themes cannot sustain any real significance in an age of irony. Andthere's none more enormous than death, a balloon that Shrigley cheerfully punctures: a taxidermied dog, upright on its hind legs, holds up a placard declaring 'I'M DEAD', while nearby, a gravestone turns out to be inscribed, not with the solemn tributes to the deceased's mortality, but with items that have wandered in from someone's shopping list – 'bread, milk, cornflakes, baked beans, tomatoes, aspirin, biscuits'. An outsized sculpture of a crumpled piece of paper reads 'Dear father, I am in jail and am shortly to be hanged. I have been justly accused of…' before suddenly breaking off. We humans are always trying to be noble and meaningful, but even in the face of death we manage to screw up the timing.
Of course, rather than dwell on one's own insignificance, one can ignore it and party wildly, like the headless figure enthusiastically performing a drum solo in one of Shrigley's video animations. In contrast to the daftly portentous tone of Shrigley's philosophical ruminations, other works suggest we should revel in the futile – one animation presents a hand, endlessly rolling a dice, which always comes up ones, while in another, the hand passes its time pressing a light switch on and off, ever more frantically.
But acknowledging futility and impotence and revelling in repetition is also Shrigley's comment on what art is good for. Art might not be able to make much difference to the world, but it does allow us to step outside of our humdrum habits and anxieties, and the dull constraints and official scripts of daily life, to look back on them and laugh - however uncomfortably.