3.19 / Review

Brain Activity

By Bean Gilsdorf July 18, 2012

Thumb: David Shrigley. Lightswitch, 2007; single screen, black-and-white projected animation, audio track; 1:29 min. Courtesy of the Artist and the Tate, United Kingdom.

David Shrigley’s Brain Activity at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is not an exhibition of enigmatic artwork, yet Shrigley’s astute wordplay and use of unaffected forms bring a depth to the work that is engrossing. At every turn, the artist uses a direct approach to his subjects, materials, and presentation, all of which work together to make an exhibition that is imaginative and comical.

Take, for example, the massed works that span from floor to ceiling on the five walls in the front gallery. The black-and-white inkjet prints of scanned drawings (each about 8.5 x 11 inches to 18 x 22 inches) are affixed to the walls so that they make a kind of deranged wallpaper. Each individual page is filled with unskilled drawings and the text of stream-of-consciousness thoughts. FLOWERS IN THE RUBBISH, reads one; another says, GET THEM OUT! GIVE THEM TO HER! and, further down the same page, NO. SHE WILL KNOW. These texts are often accompanied by renderings of workaday objects such as insects, bridges, and eyeglasses, and the artist often puts a crude emphasis on genitalia and naked people performing scatological actions. Though Shrigley’s output may be unfettered by the conventions of prim adulthood, it isn’t unselfconscious: one page pronounces in large letters, DO WHAT YOU THINK, followed underneath by smaller text that confesses, I AM DOING WHAT I THINK. The line work here, though inexpert and loose, is also deliberate and strong.

The same frankness is evident in Shrigley’s sculptures, videos, and paintings in the other galleries. One room has a long platform supporting a row of large sculptures that includes a head-shaped ceramic planter, bomb, mangled aluminum ladder, walnut, and large cup of tea. Contradicting the objects’ usual scales (the bomb is small, the walnut is the size of a human head), the sculptures read at first like fanciful toys at a rummage sale. Shrigley deadpans his way through these works as well: the cup of tea is a bulky, hand-formed vessel about a foot high. It’s titled Very Large Cup of Tea (2012) and the conventional typed object label lists its materials quite matter-of-factly as “glazed ceramic, tea, milk, no sugar.” 

David Shrigley. Boots, 2010; glazed ceramic; each pair approximately 23 5/8 x 11 13/16 x 5 7/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York. Photo: Linda Nylind.
David Shrigley. Untitled, 2012; inkjet and laser prints from original drawings; dimensions variable. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, and Phocasso/J.W. White

By setting up the conditions of the comedy—a massive cup filled with actual tea in a white-walled art institution with guards at the door and the poker-faced label on the wall—Shrigley plays the comedian and the straight man at the same time. At other times, it’s the art world on which Shrigley focuses his attention. The video Lightswitch (2007) seems to be a reference to Martin Creed’s Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off (2000). Lightswitch is an uncomplicated line-drawing animation of a finger pushing a switch. When it pushes the on side of the switch, the video is projected; when it touches the off side, the video goes dark. After flicking the switch back and forth a few times, the hand retreats to the lower corner of the frame, pauses, and waggles its extended index finger compulsively. Likewise, Sleep (2008) is an eight-minute animation that considerably shortens its predecessor, Andy Warhol’s five-hour film Sleep (1963). In another gallery, Boots (2010), a single-file arrangement of bulbous, black-glazed ceramic footwear, quotes Eleanor Antin’s project 100 Boots (1971). Though Shrigley’s work is visibly awkward and often guileless to the point of appearing unsophisticated, the ideas behind it are art-historically aware.

Shrigley is at his best when he lets his audience and the conventions of language do the work. An early photograph, Imagine the Green is Red (1997), exhorts the reader to do just that, by way of a bright red piece of paper hand-printed with the title’s words and set on an expanse of green lawn that extends lushly into the edge of a wood. It’s simple, yes, but like all good conceptual work, it is not uncomplicated. To follow the instructions, the viewer must imagine the change in color, which creates a question about where this artwork lies: in the form of the photograph, in the mind of the viewer, or both. In the next room, a large rectangular painting marked DOOR is not actually a door, and yet by proclaiming itself as one, it is. In another room, a hole bored through the wall provides a view onto the roof, where red letters are arranged to say, LOOK AT THIS. Yet by reading the words, the viewer has already completed the requested task. The curtain of naïveté that rests on the face of Shrigley’s work is often whisked away by his adroit use of language, which directs and redirects the viewer’s attention and imagination.

The show’s title is apt—the work does not just catalog Shrigley’s thoughts but also relies on a viewer’s cognitive activity. What appears to be an exhibition of artlessness is actually a display of a rare hybrid: low comedy, sincerity, and intelligence.


David Shrigley: Brain Activity is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, through September 23, 2012.

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