‘I wanted to call it “Fancy rooms filled with crap”,’ muses David Shrigley at the opening of his latest exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, ‘but they said no.’ However, the show’s eventual title, Brain Activity, is rather apt, as it opens a window on to the artist’s methods of working.
Principally known for his drawings, Shrigley has produced at least 25,000 of them since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 1991, pouring out his stream of consciousness on to paper. Of this enormous number, only about a quarter escaped his judicious editing; he explains: ‘I just keep the good ones and throw the bad ones away.’
Little more than 100 drawings have made it to the Hayward Gallery, arranged in storyboard-like rows across adjacent walls. Only on closer inspection does it become apparent that there is little narrative to unite the series. Each drawing is a tiny snapshot of a larger scene that the viewer can only imagine: ‘economy of narrative’, Shrigley calls it.
His drawings in particular are pared-back, simple diagrammatic representations that, he says, ‘have nothing to do with craft’. He talks about ‘making drawings’ rather than drawing as an activity in itself.
Shrigley says this style evolved as a reaction to the seriousness of the art he was expected to produce at art school. This desire to provoke, along with his ‘environmental art’ course at Glasgow, helped to form his witty response to context, evident in early works such as Leisure Centre (1992) and Lost (1996).
For this show, his first major retrospective, Shrigley wanted to ‘give the work a reason to be in the space’. Much of it is new, having been created in response to the context – to fill it – hence he chose to make 12 large Eggs (2011) rather than one, and line them up, like a troop of Humpty Dumpties, along a high wall. He has translated the games he plays with scale in his work into his architectural manipulation. Most unsettling is a small opening in a wall, too low to be a doorway, that hints at – yet dashes – the opportunity of retreat from the hoard of copulating metal insects that is Untitled (2009).
He has also adeptly used the views out to the sculpture terraces, pulling a picture-postcard view of London into the gallery with bronze sculpture Look at This (2012).
Shrigley’s show is very much in keeping with the irreverent tone of the Hayward Gallery’s recent programme which tugs at the edges of the question ‘what is art?’ Psycho Buildings was particularly successful at engaging with the gallery’s physical and cultural identity, and drawing in new visitors. Similarly, Brain Activity does not take itself too seriously – not unexpectedly for an artist so humorous – and yet shows a consistency of approach that makes for a coherent and peculiarly compelling exhibition.