David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery

By Jennie Gillions | 03 February 2012
An image of a stuffed dog holding a sign saying I'm Dead
David Shrigley, I'm Dead (2010)
© Image: Linda Nylind
Exhibition: David Shrigley: Brain Activity, Hayward Gallery, London, until May 13 2012

The day before his first major UK show, Glasgow-based artist David Shrigley stood in front of a group of critics and said: "If nobody had ever asked what the work's about, I probably wouldn't know."

Such an admission makes analysing Shrigley's art a difficult task; he paints, takes photos, draws and sculpts intuitively, so there is actually very little to analyse.

This makes visiting the show oddly refreshing. You don't need knowledge of Shrigley's craft, because he says there isn't one, so you are free to just see how the art makes you feel.  

The exhibition showcases 20 years of work, starting in 1992 and including 68 pieces specially created for the Hayward.

The first piece, a headless stuffed ostrich (entitled Ostrich) sets the tone for a macabre, wry, eclectic body of work that, if it's your thing, makes Brain Activity a very funny place to spend some time.  

Shrigley has become known for witty, stripped-down art that exposes the banalities and awkward situations in everyday life.

He says he has always drawn in the way he does; he views it more as communication than craft – the way you would draw if you were trying to explain something, rather than deliberately setting out to create "art".

A case in point is one drawing with the scribbled text "DRAW AN APPLE THEY SAID". The line drawing underneath has no shading, no real shape and certainly no finesse, but it is, undoubtedly, an apple.

The childlike quality of the drawings makes them funnier somehow – an odd juxtaposition of childish execution and decidedly grown-up, in some cases satirical, humour.

It’s tempting to imbue Shrigley's work with meaning that, considering how instinctively he says he creates pieces, almost certainly isn't there.

The untidy handwriting is completely appropriate – but it's his handwriting, and therefore incidental.

Several of the photographs (The Hill; A Photograph Taken Quickly; A Photograph of Some Bent Railings) are named for what they are, without any obvious pretence at a meaning, but they could easily be a mockery of the "serious art" Shrigley says he rebelled against at Art School.

We can all name an artist we think takes him or herself too seriously, who would view Shrigley's Five Years of Toenail Clippings and Stick Figures Having sex on a Car Hood as meaningful and humourless.

There is poignancy among the humour. The headstone carved with the shopping list that includes Aspirin, the photograph of a grassy area with a box in it reading Leisure Centre, the animated film New Friends that takes a wry look at peer pressure – funny, but ruefully so because of the unspoken narrative.

Brain Activity is a rare thing – a gallery exhibition that doesn’t require deep thought and doesn't take itself seriously, but still manages to be hugely satisfying.

The accompanying catalogue (£19.99 at the time of writing) is excellent; as well as a comprehensive photographic guide to Shrigley’s back catalogue, it offers accessible, entertaining interviews and essays.

Read Jennie Gillions's blog and follow her on Twitter.
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