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Monster’s Boots, Terrier Draw Ironic Laughs in London: Review

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"Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red"
"Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red" (1937-42) by Piet Mondrian. The painting is included in "Migrations: Journeys Into British Art" at Tate Britain in London through Aug. 12. Source: Tate via Bloomberg

Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Have you heard the one about the artist who filled a gallery with avant-garde jokes?

That might not sound like a laugh-getter. Yet David Shrigley’s exhibition, “Brain Activity,” at the Hayward Gallery in London (through May 13), though not roll-in-the-aisles hilarious, is amusing in a black kind of way. How seriously it should be taken is another question.

Shrigley uses various media, including drawings, animated film, objects and words. “Unfinished Letter” (2003) consists of a sheet of steel, painted to resemble a large crumpled sheet of paper. On it are written the words, “Dear Father, I am in jail and shortly to be hanged. I have been justly accused of….”

The missive ends with a blot, but gets its edge from that word “justly.” A cute Jack Russell terrier, alert and friendly like the canine star of the hit silent movie, “The Artist” holds up a sign reading, “I’m Dead” (2010).

Some of his stuff is close to Surrealism, a genre that would seem funnier if it weren’t so weird. “Boots” (2010) consists of just that: footwear. The only thing is that each boot is too big for any human foot, and they are arranged in pairs intended for limbs ending in a single claw-like toe.

In going for gags like this, Shrigley, 43, isn’t making such a big break with artistic history as you may imagine.

Many celebrated painters produced work that was intentionally comic -- Hogarth comes to mind.

On the other hand, cartoon drawings by Saul Steinberg or Ronald Searle, intended for magazines, are only a short step away from the kind of art that’s found in museums.

Shrigley’s work falls somewhere between the two. It’s not quite droll enough for Private Eye or the New Yorker, and is less solemn than most modern art. The danger is that he ends up being neither one nor the other: not very entertaining and not weighty in artistic terms. At times, he tumbles through that gap. At its best, though, his work is insidiously memorable.

Migrant Artists

“Migrations: Journeys in Modern British Art” at Tate Britain (until Aug. 12) takes its mission too earnestly. It’s dedicated to the proposition, undoubtedly an accurate one, that British art, for the past 500 years at least, owes a great deal to immigrants, passing visitors from abroad and the styles they brought with them.

It’s easy to name the notable figures who came to Britain and made wonderful works here: Van Dyck, Whistler, Sargent, Mondrian, Schwitters and many others. There are some nice things on display, mainly from the Tate’s own collection and some loans. This is an opportunity to see, to cite a few examples, good Van Dyck portraits, a fine Canaletto of Whitehall and a splendid abstract by the Guyanese-born Frank Bowling.

Video Art

In the middle is a series of projection rooms containing video art, the noise from which spills out distractingly into the other galleries. The real trouble is that what’s on the walls has no real artistic connection. This is an exhibition illustrating a thesis that is sociological, not visual.

We wander from Renaissance to contemporary art, the only common factor being that the makers, or in some cases their parents, weren’t born on U.K. territory. The experience is about as coherent as it would have been if the Tate had selected works by artists over half a millennium whose surnames begin with “F,” “S” and “P.”

Information: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk and http://www.tate.org.uk/Britain.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com or http://twitter.com/martingayford.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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