REVIEW – David Shrigley’s major new exhibition Brain Activity reveals depth beneath the one-liner
Turns out, I had David Shrigley all wrong. No longer can I dismiss him as the pseudo-artist cartoonist – appealing to those mildly middle-aged men, young at heart, that cling onto 90s sulky ‘cool’ in beer-drinking ladulthood –, his work barely distinguishable from the Bunny Suicides. Yes, Brain Activity at the Hayward puts a stop to that, revealing, as it does, the full breadth of his practice and, in the process, staking Shrigley’s claim to the title of ‘artist’ – one that is capable of generating work genuinely ‘artistic’ in character, transcending the one-liner.
Brain Activity is the first major survey exhibition in the UK of Shrigley’s work, bringing together those much-loved faux naive ink drawings, with examples of his sculpture, painting, film, and installation. We are confronted throughout with the one-liner format but, in this context, the genre gains gravitas – as, in the words of the artist, a principled ‘economy of narrative, very much like Samuel Beckett’, telling people ‘far less than they need to know’, and forcing the viewer to creatively construe from fragment.
The work Paint Your Wife, for example – depicting the artist’s hand mid-process carrying out the command –, gives the impression of comment without actually implying anything at all, thereby cornering the viewer into individualised meaning construction. Similarly, in another example from the same series of works, the phraseology of the painted sentence ‘The paper weighs nothing but the ink is heavy’ mimics the tropes of profundity but is in fact without content – we, encouraged by this allusion to meaning, are free to read according to our expectations, perhaps identifying it as a comment on the weight of historical culture on all present creative acts blah blah blah.
Thankfully, the sparseness of discernable meaning is not mirrored by a sparse exhibition, Shrigley having peppered the show with detail upon detail. A recurrent motif, for instance, is that of the key, with cast iron keys hung at various point about the galleries: without curatorial explanation, we are compelled to look closely at the other works for clues; are they keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps, to be used with the bell, ‘not to be rung again until Jesus returns’? Or, are they instead keys to the gate by which (we are told) we must not linger – a floor to ceiling partition between the two areas of the gallery?
And with detail, comes variety, Shrigley’s dogmatic graphic drawing style counteracted by the formal diversity of his three-dimensional work, from: a mock-medieval display of swords and daggers; the pet carrier and britches filled to the brim with expanding foam; the car bonnet bestrewn with copulating stick figures, mirrored by the infestation of wire insects beneath a black sun; and the rows of ceramic works from monumental eggs to shiny black boots.
Shrigley has indeed carved out a unique niche for himself in contemporary art; describing himself as being ‘somewhere between graphic comic book art and conceptual art’, this exhibition makes a case for his swing towards the transcendent latter. Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst
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