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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.

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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