Group Shows, Solo Shows

Jeff Gabel: Subtext rules this fucker

Jeff Gabel, Some fuckers standing and sitting, 2022, acrylic on panel, 24 x 18 inches

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / There’s a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, annoyed by the knowing ellipticality of a New Yorker cartoon caption, marches into the august magazine’s offices and confronts the editor – portrayed to preppy-geek perfection by the late Edward Herrmann – about its meaning. After offering several generic, pretentious, and abjectly unconvincing interpretations, he admits that he has no idea what the hell the caption is supposed to mean. Jeff Gabel – whose elaborately narrated drawings and paintings, a few site-specific, are presently on display in a solo at Spencer Brownstone Gallery on the Lower East Side and a group show at Jennifer Baahng Gallery on the Upper East Side – runs no such risk, abjuring obscure glibness for mordantly wise, sourly penetrating bloviation.

Jeff Gabel, The Cat, 2022, acrylic on panel, 18 x 24 inches

For Gabel, a serious wiseacre, subtext is almost everything. It’s easy to imagine a Gabel piece that deconstructs the New Yorker editor’s bullshit. As the archly verbose title of the show – “selective report of details of a largely fabricated memory of the porous history of sporadic reflection and observation efforts with no urgency,” cadged from alternative captions for one of the drawings – suggests, Gabel weaponizes stream-of-consciousness and interior logorrhea with paradoxically incisive humor.

Jeff Gabel, Some socio-anthropologist fucker that uses statistical 
history methods to find boundaries for his theory that 
large scale decimation or total destruction of the human 
species could be avoided or heavily mitigated via 
sufficiently widespread adoption of his model of a 
re-organization of perception’s categories, the intended 
result being to maintain at or below a maximum 
percentage limit, to be defined by the theory’s models, 
the sum among total population of, A, all belief in a 
concocted tradition-history amalgam of some imagined 
past era as sole ideal, plus B, all comprehension of 
human potential that’s limited to burned-bridges anar-
chy of history ; the proportional limiting of these two 
sets necessarily entailing corresponding increase of the 
assumed total remaining non-overlapping set whose 
members he assumes have key properties absent in the 
two sets above, namely: reflective, critical, reasonable, 
and able to create and perform evaluations ; and the 
good news is his models showing more successful 
results continue to tighten corroboration of a precise 
percentage boundary to the point that a working model 
is conceivable, but the bad news is that with his full data 
applied the models also seem to suggest the high 
likelihood that humans will largely destroy themselves 
before they could ever collectively achieve and main-
tain the theory’s desired percentage boundary for any 
significant duration, 2022, pencil on board, 10 x 8 x 2

In this exhibition, the few drawings or paintings that have no long narrative accompaniment – just conventional titles – are outliers. But in the group show that includes earlier drawings at Jennifer Baahng Gallery, Gabel employs shorter captions. While in that sense most are more in line with The New Yorker’s form, they remain expansive in substance, sometimes encapsulating entire psychological biographies. In one particularly droll one, a drawing of a man’s face, his expression quizzical but quite decipherably morphing into pleasure and relief, gets this caption: “A fucker right when someone’s asking him what kind of liquor he wants to drink at a dinner get-together where he doesn’t know most people there + he thought there wasn’t going to be any booze because he didn’t see any since he got there.

Like a grunge musician, Gabel is susceptible to sentimentalism and nostalgia and the myth of the canon but hates himself for it; his central recurring character is “some fucker.” As he himself meta-observes, many of the thoughts he has and then invalidates are “the stuff of rock songs and, if not for the lack of Ph.D.-level aesthetics words, of artists’ statements.” If he’s not an outsider artist – he did get an MFA at Pratt – he’s pressing his nose up to the window. And part of at least one caption really would make excellent lyrics for some tune emerging from the Seattle area:

I got in a car, rode with evil
Evil evil
Lookin at town ignorin the statues
Jumped in back and
Made us sandwich
Made me afraid so i missed half of livin,
Livin livin
Made me believe in the way life’s done
Believed my pride proved in history books
And people excite me today lost their value value
Road got wider, sun scorched landscape
Life got skinny,
Skinny skinny
I asked questions, evil said it
Said im hedging,
Hedging hedging
Waiting for my angle cushion my impact
Said i don’t empathy, short term sympathy
Hang my creds on a fluffy collar
Life as shallow as the edge of a dollar
Wish i could troll all,
Wish i could sequence
Can’t do both em it’s one or the other
Spend half a lifetime choosin which one
Loose half a life on a choice of a branch
That ain’t got branches, aint got choices
Ain’t got nothing but voices
Tellin you shit about you ain’t hurt.

Jeff Gabel, A career artist from the turn of the millennium – art is 
for wusses now, it’s turned into a career like very other 
career where you can assess inputs like effect, money, 
objects, & styles, independent of your primal motiva-
tions, against the efficiency in maximizing the quality & 
quantity of a set of recognized bytes, partly cause even 
faith and virtues have reduced to schemes for gaining 
personal experiences and public credit, but in order ot 
help to form the new world, still developing our of the 
deluge from the destruction from the 19th and 20th 
centuries, artist and writers and creators are more 
necessary than ever and it will take generations of them 
to make the amorphous raw material of the new earth 
visible and breath life into the new ancestors, and for 
this, the creation of form needs to become fundamental 
again instead of a flaunt, embellishment, or decoration, 
and the earth needs to be reattached to a permanent 
meaning and redeemed from the senseless grip of 
machines, and the heavens filled with gods again. But to 
take part in this, you need 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. It’s 
over for me, 2022, pencil on board, 6 x 6 x 2 inches

Most of his pieces, however, incorporate straight prose. The cascading words of uncannily coherent run-on sentences are never superfluous because they build emotional momentum that intensifies the many moments of recognition to be had in sampling Gabel’s work, informed by abundant literary and broader cultural allusions and sometimes even cast in German lest anyone think him a poseur or a dilettante, though of course we all are to some degree even if some of us myself included are loath to concede the point… (Maybe I could go on, but I can’t presume to compete with Gabel.) It’s crucial to each piece that the drawing or painting paired with the caption is invariably trenchant, distilling the essence of the narrative and getting the viewer to “That’s it!”

Jeff Gabel, View through a dubious window, an image to be erroneously given icon status in retro, if it runs out to have been a turbulent era which captured, then flattened to nostalgia through acceptance, resolution time, 2022, pastel on wall, 50 x 36 inches
Jeff Gabel, Outside the chalet over near the slope waiting for the second coming, an
assortment of family and holy hosts and surrealistic creatures, in the paper some high
strung fucker said it happens today right now, the inane things that people do but there
was nothing to do here anyway, none of the sweaters or haircuts on a real vacation look
like the 70s movies in Europe about spies or avalanches and movement’s got to be as
routine as lying around, hollowness to look forward to afterwards, vacations don’t
always help. And it looks like snow in the north. The second coming of my big ass, the
world goes on hopefully, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches

One painting in which these two key virtues – discursive existential needling and succinct visual evocation – come together with unusual seamlessness and density is the one whose caption begins “Outside the chalet over near the slope waiting for the second coming” (it totals 110 words). Here, flanked by a gaggle of roughly painted, dumbly transfixed fuckers on a ski slope, Gabel riffs caustically on the atavistic strain of knowing aristocratic aloofness that even contemporary vacationers seek in vain to harness, drawn from the Roger Moore-vintage Bond flicks he watched in his youth that made him covetous and antsy but never delivered.

Jeff Gabel, Some minister from a big fucking megachurch or 
something that gets a lot of the members to have sex 
with him giving a sermon where he’s criticizing some 
other denomination that’s trying to change their image a 
little cause of a study that says churches keep on getting 
higher percentages of confrontational ass holes, 
morons, and emotionally disturbed in their recruit sets 
every year., 2022, pencil on board, 6 x 6 x 2 inches
Jeff Gabel, The price is high when you keep the score – that’s some fucking words to a Quiet Riot song, the line popped into my head the other morning on the bus on Myrtle Ave. It struck me as typical combination of 2 clichés into a pseudo novel revelational setup of used up ideas which in this case created a notion with such high generative power and low precision that it’s barely even a proposition. It’s the stuff of rock songs and, if not for the lack of Ph.D.-level aesthetics words, of artists’ statements. The sun was coming up behind Myrtle and flooding downtown Brooklyn and all the lame new buildings that weren’t there when I moved here and creating a visible span between them and the old structures that have been here for decades, and with the recently renovated facades and newly empty lots; it sent me in a spiral of nostalgia and regret, typically a good despair brew tho this time it didn’t get to me that much. Still, I did run back through the unconnected reasoning, the irresponsible and the lazy decisions, failures to secure or to finish, dread, lack of determination, indolence and self-induced lethargy, in general the lack of respect for
the severe effects of time and impermanence; then also the insensitivity, the assumptions, close-minded self-assurance, cowardice, the spots I’ve painted myself into. I assume that I’ve taken care of a good number of these issues partially, probably none of them completely; there’s a few I’ll never fix. When some fucking words to a Quiet Riot song pop into your head, the right thing to do is take them strictly for what they are – some fucking words to a Quiet Riot song – and don’t stop to think about them–, 2022, pastel on wall, 90 x 172 inches
Jeff Gabel, Some guy that refuses to do anything fun that costs 
money cause it would have to be paid for by what he 
makes from the crappy job he works and that’d cancel 
out the fun, so he only does fun or exciting things if 
they’re free or they just happen, 2022, pencil on board
6 x 6 x 1.5 inches
Jeff Gabel, Some woman from a suburb making a giant spreadsheet 
to see if it’s cheaper to get a third vehicle, do a massive 
kitchen renovation, or just partial renovation of all the 
rooms in the house and she made 6 columns for com-
paring hassle vs. benefit for each choice, 2022, pencil on board, 8 x 10 x 1.5 inches
Jeff Gabel, selective report of details of a largely fabricated memory of the porous history of sporadic reflection and observation efforts with no urgency, 2022, installation view at Spencer Brownstone

The core quality of Gabel’s work seems to be the absurdity that stems from the apparent futility of the quest for human dignity. One of his shorter captions nicely captures this sardonic idea: “Row of people sitting in a small theater watching a play about a young girl that lives through an unforgiving tragedy and then ends up with people that saved her but also mentally abuse her until she goes crazy.” Is it concern or is it schadenfreude? Veering towards Roz Chast and beyond to Robert Crumb, he’s a kindred spirit of the cringe comedian. Like a loquacious Beckett, smoldering with grim confidence and impervious to chastisement – he won’t get any here – Gabel taps into a rich vein of scornful, even vindictive, ennui, daring us to admit that, let’s face it, we feel it, too.

“Jeff Gabel: selective report of details of a largely fabricated memory of the porous history of sporadic reflection and observation efforts with no urgency,” Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 170-A Suffolk Street, New York, NY. Through February 25, 2023.

Pitches & Scripts,” with R.C. Baker, Sharon Butler, Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht, Jeff Gabel, Zhang Hongtu, Janet Taylor Pickett. Jennifer Baahng Gallery, 790 Madison Avenue, New York, NY. Through March 4, 2023.

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