New York

David Shrigley

Anton Kern Gallery

David Shrigley’s recent work feels like the result of a personality test administered by a not entirely benevolent authority. Some of his drawings seem like innocent doodles that have bubbled up from his subconscious: a set of mindless-looking circles with an ant traveling around the rim, for example. There are also more straightforward kinds of communication: lists, diagrams, conversations (either recorded or imagined), and meaningless adages. They have a slightly adversarial air—urgent, almost belligerent, and often reaching witty heights of passive aggression. A drawing titled Dear Neighbours (all works 2005) depicts a hand writing a note that reads: DEAR NEIGHBOURS, PLEASE KEEP THE FUCKING NOISE DOWN YOU INCONSIDERATE BUNCH OF STUPID CUNTS.

The apparent randomness of these drawings, with their scrawled, childish, slightly tortured quality, gradually resolves itself, if not quite into coherence, then at least into an unorthodox and often quite funny search for that coherence—conducted, perhaps, under a certain amount of duress. Scattered throughout are questions, threats, admonishments, and bits of offhand advice to the viewer, especially to one in search of meaning: THERE IS NO NEWS, SO YOU HAD BETTER CRAVE SOMETHING ELSE; WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY TO ME? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; AND I CAN’T READ YOUR WRITING IT IS LIKE SOME KIND OF BACKWARD ILLEGIBLE SCRAWL.

Despite this disavowal, there is an offbeat logic at work here, a return to certain themes. Almost all of the drawings are engaged in a struggle between literal-mindedness and metaphor, between communication and reception, and between the use of symbols and their apparent failure. In a story made up of four parts, each part is represented by a pictograph, but the explanation of the symbols comprises the whole of the story. A series of shapes are laid out like an IQ test, but no questions are asked and no answers implied. A drawing of a guinea pig is accompanied by a conversation in which someone is asked to be the subject of a test conducted UNDER PROTRACTED EXPOSURE TO AMBIGUITY. WOULD YOU CARE TO ELABORATE? Asks the guinea pig; NO, replies the tester. A list of what appear to be clichéd comparisons are, on second look, not clichéd at all, nor, in fact, are they even remotely logical: AS SAFE AS DRUGS, reads one.

The arrangement of the drawings into groups of six, seven, and eight suggests an attempt to assemble meaning from the haphazard. An installation of thirty black-and-white paintings on wood panels has a similar effect. Each painting contains images, words, or both; some of the images are abstract if not actually Rorschachian, and the words (SALT AND PEPPER, ADBC, [WHAT NEXT?], 1 PENNY) suggest circumscribed qualities such as quantity, order, and logic without quite achieving any of them. That these works are arranged on a shelf rather than hung on the wall suggests that their order is not fixed, and that one might apply a personal logic to their arrangement; that the artist has simply lined them up from smallest to largest and back to smallest could be the result either of laziness or of a sly devotion to an order beyond the surfaces’ glib symbols.

The exhibition revolved around a solitary sculpture, a pile of extruded-looking bronze in the middle of the gallery floor, which resembles clay, garbage, and—above all—feces. It could have been the show’s mascot or some sort of wisecracking commentary, but much like the rest of the work, it presents a surface of cheerful dumbness that gives way to the growing suspicion that it’s not as dumb—nor as mute, nor as happy-go-lucky—as it first seems.

Emily Hall