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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
“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.