What's It All Mean?

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

It was during this period, as "Cone of Vision" capably shows, that Cumming began to produce some of his best-known works -- photographs for which he would set up puzzling illusional situations, which often involved elaborate sets and props, and then record them with an eight-by-ten-inch camera. Although the impetus for this work came from old movie stills and publicity shots, the deadpan manner of Cumming's presentation mocks the illusions, which in movies usually serve to deceive an audience. Still, some pieces from this period rely for their illusions not on conventions of set design but on characteristics peculiar to photography. In Of 8 Balls Dropped Off the Peak of the Roof, 2 Fell on the North Side, 6 Favored the East, Cumming simply photographed the same setup twice. For the second shot he added four extra "falling" balls to the two in the first image, then flipped the second negative during printing to suggest opposite sides of a house.

In addition to their metaphoric roles, a few objects have more or less practical uses. Cumming made a painter's easel with a sliding board built into its frame. When the board is slid forward the contraption becomes a chair. Or he will clamp giant pen nibs onto his arms, as in some Surrealist ballet. The four-image photographic sequence Cross-Body Pen-Point Choreography shows the artist swinging his new "limbs" in full arcs. Alongside it is the harpoon-like wood-and-metal sculpture Pen with Shock Absorber Tip. Cumming points to art theoretician Clement Greenberg's pronouncement differentiating those who paint with the wrist from those who paint with the whole arm. Though Greenberg imagines a fluid incorporation of the body in the process of depiction, Cumming colonizes the limb as a metal mechanism or even a slave forced into awkward and oversized movements. For the most part, Cumming's world is unpeopled. Human emotions are read into objects that have their origins in daily life but have been turned into emblems.

By 1978 Cumming had grown tired of L.A.'s decadence of artificiality and moved back to New England, where motifs not only reflected his personality and experiences but acquired a complexly layered resonance of universal power. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his repeated use of the rotary disk. One drawing has the rotary saw blade magically suspended on the crest of a small, rapid waterfall, expressing the ongoing struggle between chaos and order. Cumming imagines equilibrium, the wheel perched forever about to descend, two energetic motions canceling each other out. If the disk were to go over the falls or spin madly back up river, the delicate balance of existence would be tipped.

Indeed, the metaphoric machines and tools that figure so prominently into Cumming's work are chosen for the paradoxes they embody as well as for the emotions they suggest. If Cumming's penpoints serve as prosthetic devices, perhaps a kind of intimate body machinery, then objects like the rotary disk (and its subsequent transformations) take on anthropomorphic qualities related to those of Romantic machine-monsters. Remembrances of high school shop class are combined with evocations of 19th-century perpetual-motion machines.

Much like engineers, architects and scientists, Cumming always seems to be measuring up close, then at a distance -- removing objects from contexts and placing them beside others for comparison. Most of the large drawings and paintings, for example, are framed by serrated borders which have become increasingly complex. As Cumming explained to critic Charles Hagen: "The pattern, which was a very pretty border design, begins to overwhelm the drawing inside. You take the symmetry of the pattern and put one little chink in it and it begins to go off the paper, to misbehave and become a fearful thing."

This process can be seen in Connecticut Section, which combines rigid and pure geometries by cutting a little series of steps into a watermelon floating on a lively background of houndstooth. A building cut from perishable fruit has Cumming savoring "that which is not" -- a familiar form in an impossible place. Cumming's struggle between pattern and three-dimensional form also appears in Nine Line Light, Room and Home, a mega-grid loaded with enigmatic, fragmented and lyrical images, a painting that allows us to take the next step and enter the "interior" of Cumming's mind. Passages from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness are "stenciled" on the walls, which also include doodles of signature skulls, floating saws, pinking shears and artists' palettes. All of these images are reflected by the "lacquered" surface of a baby grand piano, transforming the psychological space into a seductive and lush environment.

From here, Cumming's leaps of thought evince his desire to transcend his humble sources through melodramatic monuments. Berlin/Brazil shows a gigantic teapot that looks like a nuclear power station. The monstrous Silhouette Cups -- Set of Four emits steam spiraling upward as energy to be harnessed. In The Shows You Way to Go Vessel, a painting of a pitcher decorated with patterns of leaves and buds that also resemble spinning galaxies and tracks of atomic particles, Cumming explores the disparity in scale between the macrocosmic stretches of space and the microcosmic world of atoms. The painting's pitcher, like all of Cumming's motifs, becomes a giddy metaphor for pure energy and freewheeling creativity. If anything, "Cone of Vision" demonstrates an intense commitment to recognizing the full ramifications of the relationship between the mind and the world. Through a dedication to craft, Cumming has acquired a firm command of the media he works in, expressed through the skills of the hand as much as of the eye and brain

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