What's It All Mean?

Robert Cumming examines the fragile nature of reality and the rotary saw

Robert Cumming's work first appeared in a Boston Sunday paper as part of a contest in which kids had to incorporate a given printed curlicue into a drawing. The winner collected a dollar and saw the results published the following week. Beginning in 1956, at age 12, and ending in 1959, when he grew too old to enter, Cumming won 14 contests. In "Robert Cumming: Cone of Vision," his 20-year mid-career survey at the Contemporary Arts Museum, the artist still displays the tendency to take an odd "given," more often an everyday object than a graphic fragment, render it senseless by separating it from its context, and then subject it to a dislocating transformation.

"Cone of Vision," co-organized by CAM and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, presents 79 of the artist's works -- including photographs, sculptures, drawings, paintings, doodles, prints, watercolors and even a 17-foot inflatable skull. Cumming's command of an array of means is more than simply an expression of craft and virtuosity -- it is a central aspect of his work. Although it has been said that Cumming aspires to a traditional Renaissance versatility, old-fashioned Yankee tinkering might best account for his accumulated reservoir of ideas, the result of a steady stream of consciousness that runs continuously back to childhood experiences.

As a boy, Cumming was passionate about his model airplanes and fantastical Piranesi-like drawings of sci-fi technology. For all his fluidity of craft, his art still has a nerdy Popular Mechanics quirkiness. In Cumming's universe the forces of order and chaos are locked in struggle. But as art critic Charles Hagen noted over a decade ago, not only is it impossible to tell whether either one is winning, it's hard even to tell the two apart. Throughout his work, Cumming has questioned the systems of order we impose on the world. By finding situations in which these systems break down, he reveals how fragile reality is and how much it's based on shared assumptions and definitions.

Born in 1943, Cumming belongs to a generation of artists whose attitudes toward the materiality of art objects shifted radically. Recognizing that objects and ideas are linked inextricably, Cumming repeatedly switches the two categories, forcing them to exchange roles. Thus, writing about objects is matched with words constructed as sculpture; photographs of illusional props are exhibited alongside those deceptive setups themselves. Cumming has explained, "I am interested in making real things, not just in taking a couple of things and making an artwork."

By chipping away at the fringes of reality, Cumming also folds systems of understanding back on themselves to confound seemingly distinct categories. Cumming's trenchant double entendres and poetically arbitrary assignations of meaning extend Duchamp's canny punning as well as his crossing of high art with the mundane. Whatever medium Cumming works in -- drawing, photography, sculpture, painting or written narrative -- he always returns to certain highly charged motifs of formal and iconic richness, whereby the meanings of mundane things proliferate. Things turn into other things and back again with ease. A bentwood chair conforms to the constellation pattern of the Big Dipper. A slice of white bread is implanted in the side of a half-consumed watermelon. Two cakes of soap are shown in a bathroom mirror: one, which says "Dial" on the front, has "Ivory" carved on the back, and vice versa. A saw blade with only one tooth becomes a spinning comma. In other works the comma's tail is filled out and takes on a guitar-pick shape. Then the guitar pick, when given eyes and checkerboard teeth, becomes the basis of a skull. The guitar-pick-as-skull, with the addition of a few lines, becomes a three-dimensional representation of a cone. It's also the outline of an artist's palette.

Throughout much of "Cone of Vision," Cumming employs the crisp, simple lines and consistent perspective of mechanical drawings. Cumming, who trained as a painter and printmaker, began making sculpture in graduate school with wood and found industrial products. To master the rudimentary techniques required to assemble such pieces, Cumming learned a new production skill each year -- such crafts as woodworking, metalworking and sewing. Cumming also studied photography with Art Sinsabaugh, learning a classical, large-format black-and-white technique. Cumming began to photograph the sculptures he was making in order to document them. Gradually, he remembers, "the works became as much about photographic documentation as about the objects."

In 1970 Cumming moved to Los Angeles -- which, with its palm trees and movie-town glamour, represented the antithesis of the New England of his childhood. The move west coincided with his growing dissatisfaction with the reductive emphasis of conceptual art. "I didn't want any of those puritanical problems any more," he recalls. "I wanted to load the work with meaning. I wanted to open it all up and let in some light, and some fantasy, and turn metaphor loose again."

Along with his friend William Wegman, a classmate in undergraduate and graduate days and a subsequent roommate in L.A., Cumming hoped that a larger audience and different environment would fuel their photographic imagery and conceptual concerns. The Southern California sojourn enabled both artists to reach maturity, to learn to rely on complex and comic ingenuity. But whereas in Wegman's early work the nominal "subject" is incidental, Cumming's primary tactic was to make things which might then be pictured.

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