September 11 - October 25, 2008
Opening Thursday September 11, 6-8pm
Jeff Gabel’s fifth solo exhibition now showing at the Spencer Brownstone Gallery features new works that employ both image and text to create complex characters and narratives.
The characters Gabel invents often have such emotionally charged facial expressions, are enmeshed in such complicated dilemmas, and have such intricate personality flaws that huge run-on sentences are required in order to describe them. Thus, it seems only fitting that there is not a convenient label with which to describe the works themselves.
They generally feature graphite drawings of fictional characters above or surrounded by textual narrative. Thus, Gabel’s work has obvious relationships with both drawing and writing as forms, but it is also at least acquainted with others like comics and illustrated books, in which both image and text are also used to create stories and emotional response.
In this case, though, it is difficult to say whether a particular piece is a drawing with text added to explain the significance of the image, or if it is, instead, text that has been illustrated in order to give the reader/viewer a visual, emotional and intellectual focal point.
Considering Gabel’s syntactical style, which usually consists of long clauses strung together with commas and rarely if ever fully stopped by periods, the focal point the image provides is certainly necessary. Whereas a fiction writer or poet uses words to create an image and to elaborate on its significance, Gabel draws characters with haunting expressions and can spend all of his words spinning a mental landscape for them to inhabit.
If you saw the drawings without the texts, they would still be intriguing, but you would never guess the set of human dilemmas that inspired or were inspired by them.
These dilemmas can be so multifaceted, and the narratives in which they are presented so tangential, that inevitably a reader will get lost in both the concepts and the syntax. And this is exactly what is fun about them. You must either go back and find the thread in the language, or you must return to the image, anchoring yourself until you are ready to row forward again. This process often results in several re-understandings of the image and the character.
The effect Gabel creates with this back-and-forth relationship between the image and unwieldy language is strikingly similar to the more extended process by which we constantly re-understand actual people in life. New contexts and exchanges change the way we “see” people. In addition, the syntactical style also seems to be connected to or commenting on the experience of being overwhelmed by information in the digital age.
If you can tell anything about a person by his handwriting, even Gabel can get lost in his dense lingual thickets of character description and narrative. His writing is more like the urgent scrawl of a person whose hand is working to keep up with his mind rather than the careful lettering you might expect from a visual artist.
Or on second thought, then maybe it is careful lettering.
I entered the gallery planning to begin near the opening and move clockwise around the space, so I was immediately drawn to the largest piece in the exhibition, “Leaving Home Tomorrow,” the themes of which include the emotional experience of some fucker leaving his home town for good for the first time, the nature of memory, and the quality of an individual’s death.
The work stretches over three walls, filling all of none of them and beginning on the one to the right of the opening. Ten words are written across the top of that first short length of wall, and the line of text continues along the top of a much longer wall, descending and thickening into a triangle which drops into a rectangle of text on the left side of the “Stained-glass portrait of some fucker who, by chance, after the,” which are the first ten words on the short wall. After the wall break (the corner which bends the line of text), the description continues “scattering of his group…”
Under the fucker, there is a trapezoid of text, which, after reaching the bottom of the allotted space turns on its side, travelling vertically up the wall on the right side of the fucker, forming another rectangle from above his hair down to ear-level before continuing onto a third wall, which, interestingly, does not reach all of the way up to the ceiling.
On this third wall, the text forms a last, imperfect rectangle because there are a few words left over at the end, where the tangents finally unravel into either “an extraordinary or a peacefully anonymous yet personalized death” or a “regretfully habitual and mundane passing from existence.” And there is no final period.
“Leaving Home Tomorrow” literally moves its viewer, causing her to walk around, tilt her head and change her perspective in order read all of the text. Although many of the other works in the exhibition include medium-sized ones on canvas and very small ones on gesso-board panels, even the very small pieces sometimes necessitate physical movement in the viewer.
This is because several consist of more than one panel, and one, which features a woman who exhibits a false grace that is actually a frightening internal poverty, includes text that fills the front of its panel without concluding and leaves the reader confused for a moment before he finds the rest written on the panel’s side.
I witnessed more than one person laughing aloud in response to this surprise, particularly because the movement in the viewer is harmonious with a shift in the content. The text on the front is describing the way in which people tend to unthinkingly repeat “what is done” ad infinitum, and then there is an arrow and one must locate the rest of the text, which continues, “She, on the other hand, still equally lacking in individuality,” recycles what is done so completely and instinctually that people mistake her state-of-being -a-mere-receptacle for a kind of grace.
Such are the complex problems of the characters that inhabit Gabel’s work.
Another example of liveliness and humor in the exhibition is that the text of some of the works makes claims about the images that are not, in fact, the case. “Leaving Home Tomorrow” describes its drawing as a stained-glass portrait and at least on other refers to its as a photograph. Although the drawings are made to resemble said media, they are drawings nevertheless.
Other works take on the subjects of artists and the art world, turning a critical eye on the effect of the market on artistic integrity. The piece about the “Career Artist” manages to simultaneously communicate the absolute necessity of art in a post-industrial, post-Bush world and the Career Artist’s failure to be childlike or transcendent enough to make that necessary art.
“But to take part in this,” Gabel writes in the voice of the character, “you need to have either the simplicity and unaffectedness of a child or the power of a titan. I don’t have either one. I am superfluous and fragmentary. I am so fucking over with.”
It is fascinating how self-aware Gabel makes this Career Artist, and how the image of him looks simultaneously terrified and as though it were sculpted of stone.
Who can say what fears lurk beneath the invention of the fuckers, empty shells and failures in Gabel’s work, but it is clear that insight, good humor and bountiful talent lurk there as well. I am happy to report that unlike the Career Artist who is so fucking over with, Jeff Gabel is the real thing, and, as a young artist, has likely only just begun.
A reader/viewer can spend hours devouring the fascinating, multi-course feast of content in the Spencer Brownstone Gallery until October 25th, 2008. I recommend that you look, read, and then look again.
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Jen Bartman is a writer in New York.