David Shrigley: Brain Activity
(Hayward Publishing, 2012)
David Shrigley does not suffer from a lack of publishing. The rare artist to maintain a presence in both the commercial and contemporary art world via his books, music videos, and gallery shows, Shrigley gained notice in the late 1990s through his publications. These booklets, filled with his po-faced, crudely drawn gag cartoons, belong to a genre that doesn’t exist so much anymore: the funny drawing book. Mid-century bookstores were filled with volumes by Saul Steinberg, Virgil Partch, William Steig, Fougasse, Edward Gorey, Jean-Michel Folon, Roland Topor, and many, many others. All of these artists, like Shrigley, found a foothold in the popular sensibilities—whether the fad was psychoanalysis, the A-bomb, booze, etc. Shrigley came along just in time to pioneer (and benefit from) the twee, deadpan neurosis of McSweeney’s, Miranda July, and other purveyors of cute opacity. I really enjoyed that vibe in the early ’00s, and published Shrigley in a journal I released with some friends. Alongside his publishing activities, Shrigley carried on an active career in galleries and museums, showing photographs, sculptures, videos, and, of course, drawings.
The present volume, which catalogs Shrigley’s retrospective exhibition at the Hayward, surveys his entire career. It’s a handsome book and smartly doesn’t try to pretend it’s a “Shrigley” book like the ones that gained him notice. Brain Activity begins and ends with the seemingly requisite studio glamour shots; in between there are copious images of artwork; two essays, both carefully explaining (more or less) that Shrigley is funny but also a serious artist, lest we get the wrong idea; a prose-poem ode to the artist by Jonathan Monk (how you might perceive the effectiveness of this piece depends mostly on how you feel about the title: “Notes, Nowts and Owts”; having a limited tolerance for unfunny, forced wackiness, it didn’t work for me); and an interview with the founder of the aforementioned McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers. The interview gets at some very useful stuff about Shrigley, but is couched in the very deadpan cuteness that typifies much of their output. The first chunk is a bit of back and forth about the technical aspects of Skype, for example. I get it, it’s cute, but it, like much of the milieu in which Shrigley has thrived, puts sensibility in place of content. We’re supposed to be interested in two creative people talking about Skype because they are doing so coyly. Full stop. That’s not quite enough to justify its existence. I mention this because the book does a good job of trying to deflect this criticism by letting it speak for itself. Sculptures and installations are smartly shown, and thankfully Shrigley’s handlettering is kept to only the title page. The paintings are shown as full paintings on the page. No fussy stuff. And the drawings are smartly laid out, photographed so as to make their medium clear, thereby distinguishing them from the cartoon-like presentation their otherwise published versions have offered. Everything is well-reproduced and all in all it’s a fine package if you like Shrigley’s sensibility. There’s even a 7” record enclosed if you like his singing.
There’s one little problem though, and this has more to do with the artist’s work than the book about the artist: As with the Skype-problem, much of Shrigley’s non-drawn work is only interesting if you know it’s by Shrigley. It doesn’t function that differently from his book work, and it certainly doesn’t function as effectively. Here’s a gravestone with a shopping list carved into it. Here’s a photograph of a sign asking us to ignore a building. Here’s a painting of letterforms done in spraypaint. Each is an acceptable, finely executed gag, but none do anything that his drawings do not—each is easily reducible to a drawn gag. Neither are they distinguished in their respective mediums. The sculpture has the generic commercial polish of Maurizio Cattelan, the paintings go nowhere Christopher Wool and Chris Johanson hasn’t gone before, and the photographs are barely more than sketches. Or, as Shrigley says in his interview: “I think I’d rather be judged by a book than some exhibitions. But I guess also, I make sculptural work because I have exhibitions, I suppose, and if I never had any exhibitions and just made books I probably wouldn’t make sculptures.” Shrigley is, finally, an idea man, and this cuts straight to the problem of presenting an overview of Shrigley’s work in multiple mediums: I get the feeling that, all things being equal, he’d rather be drawing.