x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Gent trades bleak wit for whimsicality

It's funny, sad and startlingly fey - which is the keynote to this soft-centred show.

Gent derived his inspiration from his last trip to Dubai.
Gent derived his inspiration from his last trip to Dubai.

Half of the pieces in Jonathan Gent's new collection at the XVA gallery seem hardly to be there at all. Sketched on brown silk in pencil and crayon, they look constantly on the point of flitting out of existence: an evanescent moment barely caught in an absent doodle. In a drawing titled Girl from Persia, multicoloured crayon scribbles suggest the profile of a girl with downcast eyes. Behind her stands a naked and drooping tree. A speech-bubble, in Arabic, announces: "Garden". A few feet away, in The Great Horses, powder-blue ponies like puffs of cloud gallop in pairs across the empty silken plane. It's funny, sad and startlingly fey - which is the keynote to this uncharacteristically soft-centred show. I say "uncharacteristically" because, in the past, Gent has come across as a rather nihilistic imitator of his fellow Cheshire hepcat, David Shrigley. His wayward, childlike sketches were wild black thickets of absurdist humour: in Dead Bird a heavy-shouldered girl stood with her back to us cradling something horribly indistinct in her arms. In Five Ton Mary a blocky elephant was hoisted by the neck on a chain; Cripple & Kid was just that, except dashed off with such scrawling anarchy one could hardly help laughing at the meanness of it. It all traded in a jaundiced, bleak sort of jokiness, the sort of thing you might expect to find on the sleeve insert to a Radiohead album. Here, though, a hippyish joie de vivre prevails. The show is called Views from the Eternal City, a nod to Norman Mailer's An American Dream: "There was a jewelled city on the horizon, spires rising into the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were neon of signs ten stories [sic] high." The relevant page is ripped out and tacked to a piece of silk, with almost every line crossed out except the passage just quoted and the words "the arid empty wild blind deserts were once again producing a new race of men" - butch sentiments for a show as whimsical as this one. Nevertheless the Beatsy tone is illuminating. The images which Gent has created for this exhibition all derive from sketches he made in his diary during his last trip to Dubai - and indeed the diary itself is displayed under glass in a screened off portion of the gallery, the sacred original in this shrine to the spur of the moment. For here there reigns a distinctly Kerouacean veneration for the impromptu, for the kind of nonsensical epiphany that often befalls the out-of-sorts traveller. In 6am-7am, a shaky pencil line describes a horizon with tower-block; infantile crayons pick out a tree in the foreground, and in the middle distance, thick gloopy smears of acrylic suggest a landscape flashing by: the view from a car window. Elsewhere, the approach produces a tantalising sense of narrative. In KO, the silk is filled with flocks of flapping black Vs, like the tweety-birds that circle a cartoon's head following a concussion, and the numerals one to 10: out for the count. What just happened? Well, at least the guy who got hit probably doesn't know either. Some of the pieces in the show really are too slight to bother about: This is an Original Jonathan Gent, for example, is just the words of its title stencilled in jaunty colours. It's cheeky, certainly, but not nearly as cute as it thinks. Others, however, pack an emotional wallop that belies the sentimentality of their subject-matter and the meagreness of their means. In I Miss My Mother, a laughing blonde woman, eyebrows raised, peters out at the chest. We can see her hands clasped beneath her chin, but is she hugging her knees? Sitting or standing? A chest of drawers and a cat float in the corners of the image, traces of a homely memory worn away by overuse. "I'm lost" the woman says, in Farsi. It's sappy as anything but for some reason it works. As Gent's strange travelogue shows, sometimes it's good to get lost.