A note of unreality prevails at David Shrigley's major exhibition "Brain Activity". His sculptures, which dominate this expansive survey of his work, are essentially three-dimensional realisations of the offbeat drawings for which he is best known. Assembled in this way, they begin to suggest what a comic strip brought to life would look like.
Ostrich (2009), a stuffed ostrich with its head surreally lopped-off, gives the impression of a magnified cartoon. Very Large Cup of Tea (2012) combines litres of real tea, straight out of Alice in Wonderland, with a wobbly-shaped saucer and cup blown-up to proportions which align with the realm of the unreal.
Installation view of David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery; Photo by Linda Nylind
Shrigley urges the impossible and invokes the absurdity of everyday life. A wrought iron gate left ajar incorporates the words “DO NOT LINGER AT THE GATE”. Conversely, cartoon letters wrought in metal on the terrace outside read “LOOK AT THIS”, effecting just what they demand.
References to moments in high art abound – an upright length of bamboo cast in bronze tapers into the shape of a finger, for example, nods to surrealism – but one senses that elitist in-jokes are not Shrigley’s stock in trade. Rather, a note of gleeful idiocy emerges from the "interventions" of the 1990s and early 2000s which are documented in a group of photographs. A small sign erected in front of the Glasgow Armadillo during its construction reads “IGNORE THIS BUILDING” and is accompanied by a doodled image of the structure which rears up gigantically in the background. In other photographs, a river bed is labelled “RIVER FOR SALE” and a pumpkin is adorned with a Barbie doll’s head and limbs. Unassuming in comparison with the sculptures, these images are unlikely highlights.
A sense of leaden literalism recurs in many works – whether in the visual tautology of a hanging sign bearing the words “HANGING SIGN”, or a row of ceramic eggs labelled “egg”. A dead taxidermised dog holds a sign reading “I’m Dead”, suggesting a kind of bathetic reversal of Descartes’s “Cogito Ergo Sum”. It’s a predictably funny equation, combining a figure of speech and an ineluctable fact. But ultimately, Shrigley’s intention is probably more deadpan mirth than conceptual musing. Indeed, his attitude to theorists might be glimpsed from The Philosopher (2008), a ceramic flowerpot adorned with a vacant, bearded face, from which large cacti are sprouting.
The mood darkens in the projection Sleep (2008), an animation of a figure breathing deeply. The disjunction here between real-life noise and skinny cartoon figure is oddly affecting, expressing the sheer vulnerability of a person in sleep. There is also a disconcerting quality to Untitled (2009), a sprawling menagerie of insects made from black-painted steel – bionic spiders, bundles of spindly metal resembling sea urchins, or millipedes wrought from lengths of piping.
In contrast to the bawdy humour of much British art, Shrigley's work is naive in its eschewal of matters sexual. Even a sculpture of stick figures copulating on car bonnet is deliberately daft and strangely innocent. Shrigley's works share much of the restrained comedy of Gary Larson's cartoon series "The Far Side", or the otherworldly cartoons of Steve Bell or Steven Appleby, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he has worked as a newspaper cartoonist. The childlike scrawl which leads his drawings (one wonders, is it contrived or authentic?) enhances further this adolescent tenor in Shrigley’s work. He is the boy who never grows up.
David Shrigley, Untitled, 2012; © David Shrigley
Forty-two new paintings are less successful than Shrigley’s drawings, lacking their modest scale and sparing form (despite occasional flashes of brilliance, for instance the piece in which “MEN ARE FOOLS” is blazoned above a crude daubing of Mount Rushmore). A room of drawings from 2011 – trademark doodlings often accompanied by wry annotations – confirms their place at the very heart of Shrigley's practice, summing up his quirky wit and beguiling simplicity. The spirit of Larson is again strong here; but if anything, Shrigley surpasses "The Far Side" in his evocative inanities. A hastily-drawn picture of undulating mounds (labelled “hills”) above a cross section of subterranean channels (labelled “sewer”) deftly expresses the mixture of fey idealism and banality which makes Shrigley's art so singular.
(Image at top: David Shrigley; Courtesy of the Artist and Hayward Gallery)