David Shrigley at Hayward Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on February 12, 2012

David Shrigley: Brain Activity
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre
1st February – 13th May 2012

davidshrigleyhayward

The Hayward Gallery is an awkward bloody space. Too modernist, too roomy, too much of something and not enough of something else. Despite its much coveted location and desirable gallery spaces there is no point in lying; it’s hard to make work look good here. Though for David Shrigley, whose first UK survey exhibition ‘Brain Activity’ now fills the top floor galleries, looking “good” was never an issue. “People say I have a style but I don’t know, I think of it more as anti-style.” He says this smiling shyly with his eyes down-turned. He is mild mannered and softly spoken, not the kind of man one would expect to produce works that Will Self described as“drawings done by the child murderers of child murderers.” And that’s coming from Will Self.

Best known for his doodle-like drawings accompanied by messy handwritten texts with frequent spelling mistakes and crossings-out, David Shrigley has been an active member of the British art scene for a number of years now. So active is he in fact, that many people recognise his work without even knowing who he is. His work has slowly penetrated, become familar and ingrained and accepted without a single angry bleeting headline about “modern art/pickled sheep/unmade beds/et cetera”. Shrigley’s sketchy drawings appear on birthday cards, bedsheets, teeshirts, mugs, album covers, posters and postcards as well as in his countless artists books. He is everywhere. “Yet I never really knew he was an artist artist” a friend says to me.

So, what makes an artist artist anyway? Apart from a large solo show in one of London’s top galleries? The Hayward exhibition reveals all aspects of Shrigley’s diverse practice including sculpture, painting, photography, animation and installation as well as his much loved drawings. One could argue that an artist artist is someone who is aware of the history of art, and here Shrigley does not disappoint. From the drawing of a pipe with the inscription “This Is Nothing” or the looped animation of the peacefully sleeping man entitled “Sleep”, Shrigley shows a nonchalant capacity to plunder from and refer to art history from Warhol to Magritte to Creed to Giacometti and back again. There is also a complex reflexivity in much of the work that puts Shrigley on a par with the conceptual artists of the 1960’s, (a hanging sign that reads Hanging Sign puts me in mind of Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs”). He has somehow managed to be an artist artist without any of the negative connotations of artist artistry – if you know what I mean.

I love Shrigley. I am a Shrigley fan, a bona-fide Shrigleyite. I was never going to be able to write an unbiased review of this exhibition. I think his work is so fabulously funny. The blatancy of his tragic pronouncements is so wholly recognizable as an articulation of our darkest moods, Shrigley manages to externalize familiar notions of the brute indifference of fate towards the frailty of our lives and communities. We laugh because we get the satisfaction of having our worst fears justified and we laugh even harder with relief when we realise we are not laughing alone.

If I am forced to find fault with this exhibtion I will say that I found the sculpture lost some of the essence of Shrigleyness due to the distance between title and work. Shrigley describes his work as an attempt to communicate in the fastest mode possible. Everything we need to know is right there, it is instant. But like someone stumbling over the punchline of a joke, the moment between seeing a sculpture and trying to locate the title on the wall caused the loss of something vital. But this is only a minor complaint. There is a lot going on in this exhibition, a lot of different media and formal diversity amongst the 3D objects, a lot of expanding foam, dead animals and ceramic eggs. It is hard to place a finger on what holds this exhibition together thematically. Is it something stylish or that anti-style which the artist refers to? I suppose the clue is in the title of the show; everything here stems from one man’s brain activity, that unique artist artist David Shrigley.

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Beth Fox

About the Author ()

Beth Fox is an artist, writer and independent curator. She has recently exhibited work at Divus Gallery, London, Sluice, London, Angus-Hughes Gallery, London, the Horse Hospital, London and the Bunkhouse Gallery, Madrid. She was born in Ireland and lives and works in London. More information at: www.beth-fox.com

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