The Great Masturbator on Holiday
by Daniel Jewsbury
‘Arguably’ is a weasel word. I can use it in a sentence and it will appear that I’m putting forward some sort of point of view or making some statement when in fact I’m only deferring the point at which I have to do either of those things, or anything else. For instance:
‘Neil Drabble is, arguably, a sculptor whose work only exists in photographic documentation.’
I might believe that, I might not. I’m not willing to say yet whether I actually do or don’t. Even if the statement can indeed be argued, and even if it were found to be true, so what?
Then again perhaps it’s less a weasel word and more a way of signalling doubt, which might be productive; or maybe it’s just a good means of making you do a little of the work here. After all, what’s the point in me telling you what Neil Drabble’s work is about, or how to look at it? It seems vaguely superfluous, since he’s made the images and they’re reproduced here, to try and describe them. Then again, there are particular references, in both the imagery and the titles, which can usefully be elucidated and which might allow a reader to enter more fully into the lifeworld of Drabble’s strange, fugitive subjects.
Drabble’s images pivot around an uneasy uncertainty that he introduces into the things he photographs, ‘uneasy’ because we can’t be sure where exactly that uncertainty is situated, how his subjects function between ‘things’ and ‘things-photographed’. In the More beautiful than Canova series, or in the image Two pieces of bread expressing the sentiment of love, throwaway, jokey titles destabilise his carefully composed studies. The images themselves call to mind not any individual, canonical pieces of art, but rather styles, types or techniques, the bread like some Caravaggio chiaroscuro work, the shaving foam cool and white and smooth like the marble of the sculptor’s many famous works. But it’s not clear whether the images are themselves finely wrought jokes, or whether (like all jokes?) their humour allows a genuine transformation to take place, of waste matter into something sublime. Other images are less apparently humorous and these might reinforce the reading of all of these works as ‘serious jokes’, that’s to say as genuine transformations. Arab shows a large PVC bag of some kind leaning against a wall; it immediately resembles a crouching, covered figure, perhaps kneeling in prayer or, then again, cowed with hands bound. The reference evoked here is not art historical but far more recent: the infamous photographs produced at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere by American and British soldiers torturing their Iraqi captives.
Drabble’s main reference is to another artistic appropriator, Salvador Dalí: the ‘Great Masturbator’ of the series title is a painting that Dalí produced in 1929, a surreal landscape of psychosexual terror and amorphous perversity; and the individual titles of the images are also those of works by Dalí. Each image evokes subjects and symbols employed by Dalí (the egg pierced with needles in Saint Sebastian, for instance). One series of images takes the general title Sfumato, a technique in oil painting whereby light colours are worked wet on top of a dark base, creating very subtle gradations in tone, an effect likened to viewing the subject through a veil of smoke, so that edges dissolve slightly, and contrast is reduced. Drabble is not attempting to recreate Dalí’s images, but rather to invoke them, fleetingly, like figures glimpsed amongst shifting groups of clouds, and then, somewhat perversely, to try and fix these evanescent suggestions in photographed forms. An art-historical magpie like Dalí is clearly a peculiarly appropriate subject for this kind of hommage (in the background of his painting Portrait of Ambassador Cardenas, a title Drabble takes for one of his Sfumato images Dalí himself borrows figures from Velazquez’s painting The Surrender of Breda, depicting a Spanish victory in the Thirty Years War; any list of the other appropriations in the works that Drabble cites would be long, and there would still be some subtle references missed).
Drabble’s is a kind of everyday surrealism, then, a surrealism of readymades caught by the camera whilst travelling between states of being. In surrealist painting, the almostidentifiable forms of the ‘real’ world are reconfigured in a representational dreamscape, offering us access to the transformed character of the mundane, a character that was always transformed if only we had the ability to divine it. In Drabble’s photographs, the same process is at stake, but the components of ‘reality’ do not have to be abstracted through an intermediate representational state to reveal their transformation: their capture by the lens and the camera shutter is sufficient to entirely disrupt their status as things. One of the most curious (and most revealing) images in this series, perhaps because it has no particularly clear reference points, is the photograph of a piece of rubber tubing taped into a coil and resting against a wall, entitled Ambivalent Image. All these images are ambivalent, but here the point of departure and arrival are much more unsettled, undecided; we can’t even be sure why this is such a peculiar image. It seems to suggest something, but what?
These images are all ‘arguable’; or perhaps what I should say is that all the objects caught in these images are arguable. As to whether these objects, these things, might indeed be transient sculptures frozen in permanence through an accident of photography, or whether the photographs are just unbelievable images, two-dimensional arrangements of light and dark and colour that at first seem recognisable but are ultimately nothing, I can’t be sure.