David Shrigley: brain food and mind loops

• Why a show based on obsessive taxonomy would better suit Shrigley’s catalogue of absurdity than the Hayward’s polite “Brain Activity”, and an odd echo with Antipodean sculptor Rosalie Gascoigne.

An unlikely echo: David Shrigley's "OoO ..." (2007) and Rosalie Gascoigne's "Loopholes" (1997).

I’ve just seen David Shrigley’s exhibition “Brain Activity” at London’s Hayward Gallery, but emerged disappointed: it wasn’t as playful or enjoyable as I’d expected. This wasn’t due to the work, which is by turns witty and doleful, but to the over-minimal curation – which didn’t just ignore, but seemed actively to run scared from, the artist’s bonkers fecundity of imagination. To be as reductive as the installation, and as taxonomic as Shrigley, his vast quantity of output basically breaks down into two categories:

  1. The absurdness of things
    (and I do mean absurd-ness, as in an intrinsic quality, rather than the mere modifier absurdity)
  2. The pleasure of shapes
    (which also falls under category 1, if you think about it)

Items from category 1 – the puzzling statements of a lone bemused voice – generally work best in isolation: a flyer for a lost pigeon, a thin doll in a fat pumpkin, a photo of tubers that look a bit like teeth.

Items from category 2 – variations on objects such as ceramic bombs, wiry insects, cartoonish boots – give most satisfaction en masse: it’s the relentless accumulation of slightly varied detail that evokes wonder. Hey, his teeming typologies seem to say, the world is like this too: full of peculiar everyday classes whose members are all essentially the same yet all a bit different, none of which have much reason to exist all, but all of which are worth noting and celebrating since they do. It’s an obvious message, but in Shrigley’s pseudo-cack hands a visually and viscerally pleasing one.

David Shrigley's two categories, the lone voice of absurdity and the pleasure of massed similarity: "Lost" (1996) and "Boots" (2010).

“Brain Activity”, true to category 2, was an agglomeration of parts from earlier shows. But not a dense enough agglomeration, and one that was too reverential for the material. Shrigley is notoriously prolific, yet the works here were spread thinly, and arranged with a polite reserve that was contrary to their natures. The puzzled statements were lumped together in endless non sequitur grids of randomly bizarre drawings, rather than exploring various recurring themes such as fatherhood. The sequences of similar objects were generally represented by just a few scattered examples, such as a plinth containing a miscellany of faux-naive ceramic sculptures, including a shiny black bomb. These unrelated items didn’t work well together, or convey any message; yet when a plinth containing only shiny black ceramic bombs was shown at London’s Stephen Friedman gallery recently, their alluring shop-display abundance and the exhibition’s mordant title “Arms Fayre” gave powerful life to Shrigley’s conceit of deadly-weapon-as-craft-object.

The massed allure of David Shrigley's "Bombs" (2012), at "Arms Fayre", Stephen Friedman Gallery, 2012

Even the painting of mouth-like Os entitled “OoO …” (shown at top), while seeming to be a self-contained collection, is actually part of a larger sequence of works which in one direction spin off to depict other letters, play on noughts and crosses, and evolve into words such as “horror”, while on another tangent they develop into an exploration of blobs, echoed in his many 3D collections of round forms such as peas and coins (in fact, you could curate an amazing Shrigley show by including blob-based works alone). None of which complexity can be demonstrated by isolating “OoO …” on its own white wall purely for its optical impact, as “Brain Activity” did.

Shrigley would be better served by an obsessive taxonomy, a packed exhibition space which led you along a maze-like path of his shifting forms and fancies arranged in a logical visual order. A bit like a book, in fact – it’s no coincidence that printed publications form one of his main artistic strands. And the accompanying text could point out his endless subtle riffing on the works of other artists, the most obvious riffee being Martin Creed – as his multi-sized letters attest.

A mini-survey of David Shrigley's blob-based works: "Happy Balls, Sad Balls" (2008) and "Peas"(2007).

But strangely, the acid yellow Os also made me think of an artist he’s probably never even heard of: the late Antipodean sculptor Rosalie Gascoigne, especially her 1997 work “Loopholes” (pictured at top). And wandering through Shrigley’s mis-firing “Brain Activity” on a nice sunny day, how I wished I was surveying Gascoigne’s lyrical assemblages of retro-reflective road signs instead. Formal yet playful, their take on the world’s excess of mundane messages are a considerable mental leap away from the mind-looping brain food of David Shrigley, so it’s not a sequence I’ll present here. But in the next post, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Finally, more Shrigley plays on letters... some Xs, or possibly kisses; and "Horror", 2008

• David Shrigley: Brain Activity, until 12 May 2012, Hayward Gallery, London SE1, www.southbankcentre.co.uk; www.davidshrigley.com
• The estate of Rosalie Gascoigne is represented by Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney, Australia, www.roslynoxley9.com.au

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