Walking into William Cobbing's exhibition is like stepping into an active narrative momentarily at rest - like backstage at a theatre or on a film set. Photographs that incorporate found spaces, models and sculptural prosthetics are echoed in a group of three-dimensional works, charging the space with a sense of 'something happened here'.
There is a narrative link strongly reminiscent of the novels of J. G. Ballard - with a less technology-specific paranoia. Like Ballard, Cobbing believes our constructed environment and tools define us as much as we define them. But Cobbing takes a step in another direction, giving our environment and our machines a life separate from us: as if the functional spaces we have carved out for ourselves do not wish to be left empty. In the dead moments of the everyday they insinuate themselves.
On entering the gallery the viewer encountered a catalogue of prosthetic 'limbs': extending the gallery's water pipes down to the floor, joining two large figures like fantastical Siamese twins and linking a covered car with a tremendous tumorous shape of equal size. Sculptural prosthetics were also present in the photographs, connecting crashed cars from axle to engine or brake pedal to grill, joining a seated woman to an apartment wall, or linking two people in the front seat of a car. Cobbing's 'limbs' are limp, banal and elegant; their colours recall sensible cars, corporate offices, generic domestic spaces and dull flesh.
In one of the show's strongest images - from the 'Parting' series (all works 2002) - a woman, visible only from throat to knee, is seated in an Eames-style chair in a vague, cream-coloured domestic interior. Dressed in sensibly fashionable clothes in muted green and grey, she lifts her blouse ever so slightly to further reveal a slender, pale tubular form, which seamlessly connects her abdomen to the wall. The nature of the exchange is uncertain; the woman seems both at rest and carefully posed. It is an ambiguous but loaded image, slightly erotic and slightly sinister - and just a little bit Madonna and Child. The woman's limb is many things: at once a suggestive passageway, a lyrical formal gesture, a sci-fi mutation and a ghost story. The image is presented with a coolness that lends all the elements - the architecture, the prosthetic, the model and her costume - with equal weight. It is this coolness which echoes Ballard's seminal novel Crash (1973), in which the aftermaths of car collisions are re-imagined without the preceding violence, as if the woman driver had been born in this strangely still position, the curve of the steering wheel pressed deep into her thigh. Cobbing's work represents the blank, deprived spaces of modern life as sites of unnatural communion.
The show's centre stage was shared by two pieces that represent Cobbing's aesthetic spectrum: Chang and Eng and Drag. Chang and Eng is a formally striking, humourous and fresh take on figurative sculpture: a double-figure (named after the first Siamese twins) with inhumanly organic, connected upper bodies, and lower bodies dressed in matching grey trousers and polished belts and shoes. The skin of the joined torsos is of an exquisitely smooth and contoured painted plaster, with an almost Pop polish. Drag is also a striking double form: a car draped in a grey vinyl cover with a monstrous dark shape plugging a slender limb into its axle. But whereas Chang and Eng has a refined finish, Drag is one of the ugliest pieces I have seen in a while, its crude attachment clearly made of mounds of spray foam and its car cover alternately tight and puckered. Drag is a raw counterbalance to the clean execution of much of the rest of the show, highlighting the uneasy details of the other pieces, such as the horror-show effect of the hard flash on the models' skin, or the dirty edges of the car lot in which the 'Untitled (Crash)' series was shot.
The stylistic gap between these two pieces leaves open the question of which direction the work will now take. It is risky to be as explicit as Cobbing can be, treading a fine line between the enigmatic and the coolly illustrative, and the results are sometimes grotesque and often remarkable. One wonders whether things will get prettier or more horrible from here.
First published in Issue 71