When Mickalene Thomas informed iMOCA (Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art) a few short weeks ago that her show wasn’t going to happen — claiming production delays — the museum did what few institutions can do on such short notice: It quickly brought in another artist from its pipeline of possible future shows. Without missing a proverbial beat, iMOCA installed and opened New Work by Jeff Gabel last weekend; and by all accounts, Gabel clearly didn’t mind being the understudy.
When I visited the gallery on the afternoon of the opening, Gabel was happily flitting about the gallery like a nervous parent before a daughter’s wedding, checking a picture here, a picture there, standing back to take in the super-sized drawing he’d made directly on one of the gallery walls.
I’ve never met Mickalene Thomas, but her work, which has been described by iMOCA curator Christopher West as “lush, complex portraits of African-American women,” couldn’t be more different than Gabel’s miniature, almost crude sketches of white folk contemplating the ennui of life and its many layers. But Gabel himself — a white guy who curiously resembles the characters in his sketches — seems to have a brighter demeanor than his fictive characters, who run the spectrum from high-powered female attorneys contemplating tax code in front of a group of investors to sad sack divorced dads watching porn in the dark.
Gabel’s flat, smudgy, captioned drawings conjure up both New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and iconoclast artist Raymond Pettibon, and yet they clearly stand apart: Gabel’s characters have the gift of gab, their contemplations morphing into philosophical rants in tiny, hand-printed text beneath their portrait. A thinly disguised self-portrait reads, “Art is for wusses now, it’s turned into a career like every other career where you can assess input like effort, time, money, objects & styles, independent of your most primal motivations, against the efficiency in maximizing the quality & quantity of a set of recognition bytes, partly cause even faith & virtues have reduced to schemes for gaining personal experience & public credit …” and it goes on … and on … and on … for at least another 100 words.
Gabel, a Brooklyn, N.Y., transplant hailing from Nebraska, has been lauded by most of the big New York publications, from the New Yorker magazine to the New York Times. Despite the absurdity of Gabel’s run-on sentences, despite their breath-sapping length, Gabel carries a thought or an idea to its umpteenth power, like some verbal mathematics that almost hurts to decipher but manages to make sense.
New Work by Jeff Gabel is on view at iMOCA, 340 N. Senate Ave. Call 317-634-6622 or visit www.indymoca.org for information.