October 2010, David Shrigley @ Anton Kern Gallery

David Shrigley, Untitled (Please excuse the terrible injustice), 2010
Copyright David Shrigley, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York

David Shrigley
Anton Kern Gallery
532 West 20th St
New York, NY, 10011
September 15 through October 23, 2010

What is it that is so funny about David Shrigley? His current and fourth exhibition at Anton Kern appears, for the most part, on the surface, to be like all of the others. There is more sculpture in this show than I can remember from other shows, but walking in the door, it looks like David Shrigley again; it looks like his shtick. Mostly sad little drawings which, many with or consisting of text, at first glance always look as if they could have been made by a deranged child or a homeless alcoholic coping with delirium tremens. This is of course, a significant part of their charm. They appear easy. They appear so easy, in fact, that they sort of poke fun of the entire situation and activity of looking at drawings in a gallery. They passively assert themselves in defiance of all that is epic, grandiose, slick and polished. There is also a fair amount of sculpture in the show. On the center of the floor is a plinth, with ten pairs of shiny black cartoony boots around twenty inches high, give or take a few inches. Directly ahead, inside the door, is a small bronze, turd-like sculpture on the floor in the shape of the word “IT”. The wall at the front of the gallery has many worm-like, or skinny turdish bronze sculptures coming out of the wall. There is a rib cage directly on floor made of steel and plaster. And there are sneaky little sculptures throughout the exhibition. It’s the drawings that hold my attention the most. With the exception of simple frames, they are presented very matter-of-factly. Some of them are outrageously funny, causing viewers to laugh a bit more than the conventional smirking nose exhalation. I myself have erupted into an occasional gasp of laughter in front of his work, and I’ve heard others do so as well.

Acknowledging this, I come back to wondering just what it is about his work that is so funny. There is that subconscious level of the psyche - the id, where powerful thoughts and drives run quietly in the brain. We all experience random lusts and desires to murder that deviate from the conventions of proper social behavior. Such thoughts and drives, while ever present, almost always remain private, and lie just beneath the surface. When they do emerge, feelings get hurt, people get embarrassed and the delicate social order becomes disrupted. There is also the quiet consciousness, which exists in the realm of neurosis -the private thoughts, which intensely focus on the banal, the irritating, the self- aggrandizing, the self-loathing and random loathing of one’s neighbor. Shrigley, being keenly aware of his audience, turns up the volume on these realms of the mind, and has a talent for giving them a quirky, strangely seductive form.


David Shrigley, It's all going very..., 2010
Copyright David Shrigley, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York

A painted plexi-glass sign hangs from the end of a pole from the roof of the gallery (It’s All Going Very… (2010)). The sign is white, resembling a flag of surrender, with black text painted with what appears to be a shaky hand. The east facing side of the work states “IT’S ALL GOING VERY WELL NO PROBLEM AT ALL ”, while the west facing side states “IT’S GOING VERY BADLY IT’S A TERRIBLE DISASTER”. The gesture of hanging a white flag of surrender outside the gallery, occupied by Shrigley, positions the space as being under siege. It’s a passive-aggressive gesture, but the text complicates the dynamics between passivity and aggresivity, and plays with the tension between the two opposing gestures. The tactic of waving a white flag in battle to surrender, appeals to the mercy of the enemy. The text of the west-facing side of the sculpture states a disastrous predicament, and in such a spot why wouldn’t someone wave a white flag? The east-facing side of the sculpture reveals things are going smoothly. Why would one wave a white flag if things are going well? The work hangs as a monument to indecision, and a passive-aggressive assault on gallery goers.

The drawing Untitled (Do you draw every day?) (2010), consists of lines of text, which depict an imaginary conversation between an unidentified interviewer and an artist - an artist that seems as if it may be Shrigley talking about his process. The visual character of the text is exemplary of how he usually renders it. It’s hand-printed in its usual nervous character. The conversation consists of the interviewer asking the artist if he draws everyday, the artist replies yes he does draw every day. The interviewer goes on to ask if he discards drawings, the artist says yes. He asks what criteria he uses to decide on the quality of a drawing, the artist explains that he measures the virtue of a work and if the virtue falls below a “reasonable” level he discards them. Finally when asked if he makes more than one version of a drawing, he says he tries not to, unless the drawing becomes “dirty”. The context of the show, and Shrigley’s larger body of work, points to the fact that this interviewed artist might be David Shrigley himself, but there is also the likely possibility that the interview is entirely fictional. Both the artist and interviewer are conceptual characters employed to make the drawing, which appears to comment on all of the other drawings. This, like many of Shrigley’s drawings come across deceptively simple, but are often underpinned with an evasive, yet tight, sort of logic.

David Shrigley, Untitled (Hero meets leader), 2010
Copyright David Shrigley, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York

The drawings, even the ones which consist of large amounts of text, are rather stark and leave a lot of questions with regards to what is being looked at. There are a lot of blanks, a minimal amount of signifiers, and plenty of room for viewers to fill them in. Two shaky-looking figures in black ink face each and shake hands in Untitled (Hero meets leader) (2010). Two lines of hand-drawn text float above the figures which state “hero meets leader.” The figure on the right is on crutches with a missing right leg. The figure on the left asks in a speech bubble “Does the stump hurt”? The figure on the right says, “yes like hell”. Because it is a “hero” and a “leader”, we can guess the figure on the right lost his leg in a war, but there is nothing about either of the figures that identifies them as soldiers. The matter-of-fact tone of the brief conversation first comes across as somehow darkly funny, but it also conjures the awareness of maimed soldiers who are presently returning from a brutal, misguided and unjust war. The pathos of the situation, and the rendering of the figures and text (as in all of Shrigley’s drawings) is presented in such a banal manner, that the seriousness of the subject matter is overlooked at first. It initially comes across as funny, but there is something dark under the humor.

In Untitled (Please excuse the terrible injustice) (2010), large hand-printed text “PLEASE EXCUSE THE TERRIBLE INJUSTICE” fills most of the paper, with a small “THANK- YOU” hand-printed under the word justice. I’m left to imagine all sorts of terrible injustices -a wrongly accused man hanging, an old lady being robbed, or a village full of starving children- with this drawing, this sign hanging in front of the injustice, it asks to excuse. The polite tone of the drawing is incongruous with regards to that which is unjust and terrible. The fact that it pleads for the viewer’s excuse, and then quietly thanks the viewer, it is implied that we the viewer have already excused the injustice as we have been asked. The tactic Shrigley employs here is not unlike what Nauman uses in Pay Attention Motherfuckers, 1973, where the aforementioned text is printed in reverse. When the viewer has realized this, and therefore read it, he/she has paid attention; and in doing so has become a motherfucker. Shrigley engages us with the unnamed injustice through the conventions of polite conversation. He manages to reel us in and smack us over the head in a much softer way than Nauman does.

With his seemingly unsteady hand, David Shrigley has a steady and resolved body of work. His sketchy, weird trademark figures and text are consistent. In spite of its initial appearance, the work is layered and mature. While there is a bit more color in this exhibition than I’ve seen in other Shrigley shows, this current one doesn’t stand out much from the others I’ve seen over the last few years at Anton Kern. The moves he makes are more lyrical and nuanced. While his humor does not steer clear of subject matter such as dogs humping each other, or a rat shitting in your mouth -which is just fine- it is also often very cerebral, absurd, and uncanny; a multitude of neurotic gazes into the navel that reveal a glimpse into larger, mysterious questions. What it is exactly about his work that is humorous, often evades us the moment we think we know what it is.


David Shrigley, Untitled (Do you draw every day?), 2010
Copyright David Shrigley, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York


David Shrigley, Installation view, Anton Kern Gallery, 2010
Copyright David Shrigley, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York

David Shrigley, Installation view, Anton Kern Gallery, 2010
Copyright David Shrigley, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York


Chris Kasper


Chris Kasper is an artist/teacher/writer living in New York City. 
He holds an MFA from the School of Art at Yale University and completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006.


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