“I will make 100 works on paper with the intention that no more than half are any good,” the extremely popular and successful artist David Shrigley told the Guardian recently. “And there are probably four where you’re like: ‘This is basically fantastic! This is me demonstrating my area of expertise and all the other 96 are just attempts to do this.’ And do they sell? Do they fuck. You look through the inventory going: ‘Nobody bought that? Nobody bought that? Well, what did they buy?’ And it’s a picture of a cat or something.”
Way too modest. Shrigley has actually been making bank for years with tea towels, mugs and other merch branded with his often very funny captioned drawings. Some of which feature cats. I’d have a hard time thinking of a museum gift shop I’ve visited recently that hasn’t been hawking some kind of Shrigleyana. So in a topsy-turvy way, it was nice to see some of the Cheshire-born, Brighton-based artist’s work in the much less commercialised environment of… commercial gallery Stephen Friedman, which is featuring a conceptual piece this month.
The title of the exhibition, etched in green neon on the gallery’s windows in Shrigley’s immediately recognisable handwriting, is totally deadpan descriptive. Bright yellow tennis balls line the walls, mostly in perfectly regulated rows. They smell amazing. They’re there to be swapped, if the visitor's brought any balls along themselves.
All the variety comes from people who have actually participated in the exchange, bringing an old ball to swap with a new one. I spotted one branded with the Wimbledon tennis championships with what looked very much like grass stains. A couple of others had marker pen scrawls that matched the deadpan tone of Shrigley’s own captions: “Fay woz here”, “come on Tim”, “<3 meh”. Cynically, I wondered how many of them were planted.
But my mean feelings were soothed by the pin badge I fished out of a bowl on my way out of the gallery: if there’s one thing Shrigley is really excellent at, it’s merchandising. But that in itself is an exceptionally tough skill, and all the harder to do in a totally distinctive voice.
“I’ve realised my tastes are very peculiar relative to the rest of the world,” Shrigley has also said, in his customary pose of playing dumb. “I see genius and other people see rubbish. I see rubbish and they see genius.”
David Shrigley: MAYFAIR TENNIS BALL EXCHANGE is at Stephen Friedman Gallery (London). 19 November 2021 - 08 January 2022