When I first saw David Shrigley, I was taken aback by his calm aura and semblance of complete normalcy. A man known for his searing dead-pan humour, I half-expected to see a crazed post-punk artist living on the fringes of society. But here was a charming, clean-cut gentleman, tranquilly tattooing ink drawings onto willing participants in the middle of London’s most extravagant art fair.
Calm, cool and collected on the outside, seethingly acidic on the inside, Shrigley’s solo show at the Hayward Gallery, London, mirrors the state of the artist himself. Moving way beyond the drawings for which the artist is best known, Brain Activity includes Shrigley’s paintings, sculpture, installation, animation and photography – cracking open the artists’ cranium for us just a little bit.
I admire the brutal honestly in Shrigley’s work – he tells it exactly as it is, injecting humour and wit into the everyday with his veracious observations. His work is highly accessible – witnessed by the large number of children running around the exhibition – but never simply topical. Both referential and moralistic, Shrigley’s work extends far beyond the realm of cartoons, and is beginning to become an institutional staple.
My personal favorite of the exhibition, the animation New Friends, jubilantly tells a story of conformity – what happens when a highly militaristic ‘square head’ falls down a rabbit hole to join the dance funk tunes of the ‘round heads’. As we learn, there is a price to be paid to have a bit of fun, and it might be part of your head.
The simple and satirical video, Lightswitch, pays homage to another British artist, Martin Creed, whose Work No. 227: the lights going on and off, won him the Turner Prize in 2001. While Creed’s work, in which the lights in the gallery simply turned on and off every five seconds, is austerically minimal, Shrigley’s is maniacally hilarious, as a long awkward finger has its fun playing games with a light switch. Hours of entertainment derived from the simplest of things.
Shrigley’s earliest works, photographs which document his fleeting urban interventions, have the same witticism embedded within them – a sign in the middle of the flowing water labelled ‘river for sale’, a tiny box reading ‘leisure centre’ in an empty site, and a posted notice seeking a lost mangy pigeon.
In the room dedicated to the recurrent theme of ‘Death’, a taxidermied Jack Russell terrier holds a sign proclaiming his current state of existence – both a dryly accurate observation and a modern day pop vanitas, reminding us that we will all be dead one day.
Here, and throughout all of his work, Shrigley’s observations about the human condition are spot on. I quite like the journey inside Shrigley’s brain and am happy to spend a bit of time there – there is something about his scathing honesty and dark humour that is refreshing, and simply feels good for the soul.