The Rapture: Doble & Strong by Ashley Crawford

Their first collaborative outing, at Block Projects in 2010, inspired shudders of awe, repulsion, delight and argument. It was raw and visceral and unlike anything seen before. Robert Doble, a painter, and Simon Strong, a photographer, had joined forces in a bizarre amalgam that was at once beautiful and surreal.

Inspired in part by the death of a close friend via a brain tumour, the exhibition contrasted the beauty of the human form with strange deformities and outgrowths. Their human forms, at least what once can see of them, were essentially perfect. Their globular, perhaps carcinogenic, outgrowths were contrasted with the ideal female breast, their dripping, corpuscular ectoplasm embracing the hour-glass figures of their models like an alien succubus love. Writing in The Age, Dan Rule waxed lyrical, describing the works as “a paen to the mystique and poetry of human form.”

While retaining a tight and beautiful aesthetic, the new work takes on a more hallucinogenic glow, the suggestion of an internal, rather than external, transmogrification. Rather than the body being physically assailed, the figures here appear to be in a form of rapture, seduced by a drug-induced morphine type of ecstasy, the figures undergoing a form of psychedelic metamorphosis, perhaps the outcome of a hearty dose of lysergic acid or perhaps a more sublime spiritual revelation. The Rapture?

While in the previous body of work the deformations and singularities appeared to be external, the ectoplasmic forms here practically whoosh from the body(s) in an almost orgasmic rush. I have not personally experienced morphine or heroin, but I have witnessed the strange, faraway look in the eyes of cancer patients as they self-medicate in moments of pain, a tremulous grin replacing a grimace, a far-away gaze into a world of momentary pleasure. I have however, many years ago, dabbled with LSD, a strange side-effect being, as my girlfriend of the time would happily attest, was being sexually insatiable. What she was unaware of at the time was the grotesque morphings that she was going through via my drug-addled mind. She, like Doble/Strong’s models, was adorned with a beautiful body, and yet that body morphed and shifted, at one moment insectoid, at another vanishing in a wonderful wisp of coloured smoke, almost exactly what these images portray.

And there is, clearly, an electric sense of sensuality and sexuality at play here, a distinct aura of the calefacient. There is an obsession with the body, both male and female, the men powerfully endowed, the breasts of the women proud, the gargantuan vagina arguably either diseased or aroused in some alien form.

There is a long and proud history of halluciongenia – a genus of hallucination – in the arts which includes the surrealists – both literary and artistic – from Á Rebours(Against Nature) by J.K. Huysmans, to the bizarre photographs of Hans Bellmer, to the talking assholes of William S. Burroughs writings, captured so brilliantly by filmmaker David Cronenberg in his adaption of Burrough’sNaked Lunch. All of which encompass the physical alongside the delusional.

Doble and Strong take their research very seriously indeed. Their recent collaborations are littered with scientific and medical jargon. In the midst of writing this piece, Doble e-mailed me an astonishingly terrifying image. The e-mail was titled “the future of mankind” and depicted the milking of the horseshoe crab – the exoskeleton of which resembles a crude Virtual Reality helmet or medieval torture device. Doble commented “can you imagine humans bound by leather straps and being used in this way?!”

But such are the arcane explorations that these works have led the two artists to. The horseshoe crab does in fact carry an obscure medical application used today. But there is something consummately terrifying by the artists’ extension of applying this process to a human skull, an imagineatorium that would have delighted Burroughs and left the rest of the human race bewildered.

Indeed, somewhat like these works themselves, where beauty meets the abstract in the extreme. Whether hetero, or homo, sexual, one, unless dead, will find visual pleasure here. But it is pleasure born at a cost, an element of inevitable post-orgasmic melancholy, a desire for the rapture of flesh but a questioning of the reality of that sensation, of what is real and what is not. The milking of the poppy, whether it be floral or penile, leads to a sinuous eruption and a sense of ecstasy… or delusion.

Ashley Crawford 2010