The humble but compelling protagonist of Brian Griffiths’ exhibition “No No to Knock-Knocks” (until 17 March) in the downstairs space at Blain Southern gallery in London is a naked, knocked-about puppet without strings.
Measuring only about 12 inches in length, he is made from pieces of wood that are roughly painted pink, has an outsized ball of a head, the most basic of limbs and a dangling penis. His face is blank: he has no eyes, just a bulbous nose, a line for a mouth and a pair of metal loops in the place of ears.
This deadpan, unsupported figure is placed in various sculptural scenarios which often seem ridiculous and at the point of collapse. He swoons against the wall, head flung back, a mini-pietà cradled between two nails with a scrap of yellow-painted wood as a backdrop.
Laid out on a curve of wall-mounted plywood, he could slide to the floor at any time. When pinned and hooked upright onto a backing board and arranged across a trio of shabby tabletops, there is a brief semblance that he might determinedly march, though the expectation soon falters as he slumps and lurches forwards.
Poignant and absurd, existential and exasperating, he is a doughty everyman with more than a whiff of Buster Keaton and a distinct resemblance to the dated British layabout newspaper cartoon character Andy Capp.
Since the 1990s the London-based artist has used both theatricality and pathos to investigate how we use objects to give meaning to our world, whether to sublimate our fears, organize our affections and anxieties or shape our fantasies. “We make ourselves and remake ourselves by the objects we surround ourselves with,” he says.
The push-pull between material quality and emotive expressiveness that is so key to the Blain Southern show has been a constant concern. Griffiths’ giant tented bear’s head The Body and Ground (Or Your Lovely Smile) (2010), made from used tarpaulin and acquired by the Tate in 2013, is a study in droopy melancholy.
For an exhibition in 2015 at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, he created a fantasy landscape of elaborate model houses emblazoned with photographs of the American actor Bill Murray, that most woebegone of anti-heroes.
“No No” marks a new departure in which Griffiths has drawn on stage and screen writing techniques to devise his series of vignettes. All these assemblages of scrappy objects with his little pink figure at their center combine to make an installation which functions like a three-dimensional storyboard where there is no overarching plot but abundant narrative possibilities.
Also on show are three large works made from bolts of grey canvas roughly bunched with black tape which dangle ominously from the gallery ceiling and slump onto the floor. Like the small wooden figures next to which they lurk and flop, these fabric personages use the barest of means to suggest the human form.
The title of the exhibition both forbids and evokes that most hackneyed of comedy routines, the “knock-knock” joke, and in much the same way Griffiths’ works refuse any easy single reading. Instead he lets the unsaid question “Who’s there?” hang in the air.
Naked Caucasian men may not be the most sympathetic of subjects right now, but in the deft hands of this artist all of humanity is conjured up in these little tragi-comic figures and their large silent companions. With its many paradoxes, pratfalls and profundities this is a show that chimes closely with our troubled and precarious times.