Robert Cumming: Aluminum Cube and Other Photographs @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 black and white photographic works, framed in black/brown/white and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (single images and diptychs, some with texts/inscriptions), made between 1972 and 1980. Print sizes range from 4×5 to 30×40, with many 8×10, and edition sizes are generally either 3 or 10, with the exception of several prints taken from a book maquette. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work entitled Robert Cumming, The Difficulties of Nonsense was published in 2016 by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 180 pages, with 150 black and white and color illustrations. Includes an essay by Sarah Bay Gachot and an interview with the artist conducted by David Campany. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: We’ve seen a flourishing resurgence of staged conceptualism in contemporary photography of late, where made-to-be-photographed scenes are being painstakingly purpose-built by all kinds of photographers to create clever illusions and distortions when flattened by the eye of the camera. This new work has been rightly celebrated for its extensions of iterative rephotography, its use of digital tools, its in-depth rethinking of optics and additive color, and its integration of the physicality of the final photographic print.

But when it comes to fabricated photoconceptualism, what we’re seeing now didn’t entirely evolve out of thin air, as much as some of its current practitioners might like to think. Its roots clearly lie in the work of a number of brainy artists working in the 1970s, who pioneered many of the compositionally sophisticated ideas that make up the foundation of this evolving genre. Robert Cumming undeniably belongs on the short list of early photoconceptual groundbreakers, and this gallery show (and the recently published monograph that accompanies/matches it) attempts to reaffirm his place in the hierarchy and clarify the primacy and influence of his contributions.

In many cases, deliberately confused perception lies at the heart of what Cumming was after, and his sense of provoking the viewer with situations (and deceptions) that seem impossible runs through much of his best work. The Ball was Left by the Foot of the Folding Screen/The Ball was Left by the Foot of the Stairs is a classic in this kind of staged inversion. Like a shifting figure ground exercise, depending on the way the viewer sees the image, the ball is either sitting on the herringbone floor against the zig zag bottom of the striped screen, or bouncing up onto the first step of the striped stair against the herringbone wall. That it can be both with such equal persuasiveness is what gives the picture its enduring smartness.

Many of Cumming’s works test us with the knowledge that they aren’t (or might not be) what they seem. Monogramed stationery from Washington’s art museums was been meticulously lined and edge-cut to resemble rat-chewed spiral bound paper. Cameras haven been reconstructed in cardboard. The indented impressions on the surface of Ritz crackers have been replaced by images of assholes. And a claustrophobic submarine interior reveals itself to be an elaborate stage set. With Cumming, it’s a constant pitched battle of cerebral illogic.

A selection of nudes from Cumming’s book maquette A Training in the Arts gets even more eccentric and pleasingly incomprehensible, especially when accompanying snippets of text pull us in skew directions. Highly controlled absurdity reigns, with a naked man hanging on a swing, a naked woman standing under a ladder with her breasts hanging down, a group of naked people pressing a woman’s rear end, and a male/female pair tied up in some strange measuring exercise, each one intentionally open to right and wrong interpretations.

Cumming’s playful inventiveness is the bedrock of his consistent artistic strength. From constructed constellations on clamped glass to arrays to coffee/tea cups augmented by a “me cup” (his hands cupped together to hold liquid), “she cups” (a bra), and a reflected self portrait, his pictures can’t help but make us smile at their oddball brilliance. For contemporary practitioners of variants of this kind of conceptualism, what is generally lost is this intelligently wry humor, too often replaced by a deadpan dull irony that pushes the viewer back. Cumming’s works do just the opposite – they effortlessly draw us into his complex invented worlds, where his unconventional ideas are repeatedly shown to be much more than tricks and one liners. Cumming deserves to be rediscovered by the new generation, and this gallery show and handsome monograph will hopefully catalyze the reemergence of his knowing nonsense.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $8500 and $16000. Cumming’s work has not been consistently available in the secondary market in recent years; the few lots that have come up for auction have ranged between $1000 and $8000.

Read more about: Robert Cumming, Janet Borden Inc., Aperture

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