TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1983

ROBERT CUMMING’S SUBJECT OBJECT

IN ROBERT CUMMING’S UNIVERSE the forces of order and the forces of chaos are locked in struggle. Not only is it impossible to tell whether either is winning, it’s hard even to tell the two apart Cumming’s method is to focus attention on what he calls “perceptual glitches,”1 test cases at the extremes of meaning. Like a willful child constantly testing a sore tooth with the tongue, he jabs away at the shimmering fringes of reality, folding systems of understanding back on themselves to confound apparently distinct categories. “Without a constant misuse of language there can not be any discovery,” argues Paul Feyerabend, the historian of science; generating readings and misreadings, Cumming’s work extends Duchamp’s canny punning, as well as his crossing of “high” art with the mundane.

Cumming carries this out through a profusion of media. More than simply an expression of craft and virtuosity, his command of an array of means is a central aspect of his work. He is less a Renaissance polymath than a Yankee tinkerer; but in the spirit of both, he explains, “I am interested in making real things, not just in taking a couple of things and making an artwork.”

Born in 1943, Cumming belongs to a generation of artists that has demonstrated extreme pendulum swings in its attitude toward the materiality of art objects—a fact reflected in his production. Encompassing drawing, photography, sculpture, and written narrative, his work examines the connections between object and idea. Writing about objects is matched by words constructed as sculpture; photographs of illusionistic props are exhibited with those deceptive setups themselves. Rather than simply producing gallery works whose primary function is to comment on art-historical questions of style or medium, or merely alluding to the issue of technology’s impact on the nature and function of objects, Cumming follows another path. Recognizing objects and ideas as inextricably linked, he repeatedly switches the two categories, forcing them to exchange roles; by doing so he pushes his questioning beyond the limits of either alone.

His art, for all its fluidity of craft, is touched by a “Popular Mechanix” quirkiness which continues his passionate boyhood involvement with model airplanes and fantastically detailed, Piranesi-like drawings of science fiction technology. The metaphoric machines and tools that figure prominently in Cumming’s earlier work are pastiches of hardware and machine parts, chosen for the logical paradoxes they embody when assembled in particular ways as well as for their emotional suggestiveness. Many are prosthetic devices of a sort, intimate body-machinery: “spike” heels that are really thick dibbles piercing the ground; large pen point–like armor in which the nib covers the wearer’s genitals, and so forth. Some of Cumming’s machines take on directly anthropomorphic qualities, and thus are related to the long history of Romantic machine-monsters. Echoes of high school shop class are combined with evocations of 19th-century perpetual motion machines and of such domestic (and somewhat laughable) mechanical devices as automatic chicken pluckers.

In much of his work Cumming uses the illustrational codes of mechanical drawing, with its crisp, simple lines and consistent perspective. This theoretically neutral system, which brings with it a wealth of connotations from technology-based culture, has been well suited to Cumming’s interest in being able to actually construct his metaphoric machines. While an undergraduate, Cumming produced a series of detailed drawings of fantastic machinery which he called “machine landscapes.” As in most of his drawings since, the machines could be produced as objects. “I would almost design and engineer a thing before I’d do a drawing of it,” he says now. In some instances he would make several different drawings of the same object to demonstrate the functions the contraption could perform.

Trained as a painter and printmaker, Cumming began making sculpture in graduate school, using wood and found industrial products. After moving to Milwaukee in 1967 he started to use components of the sort found in hardware stores to assemble more intimate objects than the industrial behemoths of his machine landscapes. Learning the rudimentary assembly techniques needed to produce these hardware pieces led him to undertake the project of acquiring a new production skill each year; among the crafts he has learned are woodworking, metalworking, and sewing. Typical of the objects he produced in this period are a pair of long crutch like implements made of marine hardware. Designed to be attached to a person’s arms, these devices look potentially “useful,” but just what their function is remains ambiguous. They were used as props in a performance Cumming staged in Milwaukee with William Wegman, a classmate in both undergraduate and graduate days.

While in graduate school Cumming had also studied photography with Art Sinsabaugh, learning a classical, large-format, black and white technique. In Milwaukee he 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.” At the same time he became involved in mail art, sending various objects—a tree branch in one instance, as well as some of his hardware sculptures—through the mails to test the limits of what could be transmitted through that system. As part of his involvement in an international network of correspondence artists he also wrote many letters, an activity that in turn fed his interest in writing and words in general, and led him to investigate related disciplines such as handwriting analysis, lin-guistics, and typography. “I was interested in everything verbal for a period,” he remembers. “It was like finding bolts in a hardware store and learning how to put things together—that was the new skill, learning how words worked.”

This diversity of activities coalesced in Sentence Structures, a piece Cumming made in 1970 for an exhibition in Minneapolis curated by Richard Koshalek. In an empty lot Cumming erected rows of wooden poles and crossbars to which he attached words made up of foot-high cutout wooden letters; the words, which formed sentences, were arranged on the supporting poles according to a popular graphic method of parsing, or analyzing the syntax—diagraming the “sentence structure.” The overlay of linguistic analysis in this piece was of course a common theme in conceptual art; the extended tactic of transforming the essentially abstract signs of letters into physical objects is one Cumming has pursued in many forms since then.

In 1970 Cumming moved to Los Angeles, where he would spend most of the next decade. At the time he’d never been west of the Mississippi; California, with its palm trees and movie-town glamour, represented the antithesis of the New England of his childhood. The move west coincided with Cumming’s growing dissatisfaction with the reductive emphasis of conceptualart. “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.”

In his restlessness he turned toward narrative, beginning in 1971 the series of brief stories that he would publish in 1973 as A Training in the Arts. He published two other artists’ books before this one: Picture Fictions (1971), a sort of catalogue of some of his conceptual and photographic pieces, and The Weight of Franchise Meat (1971), the record of a project to weigh the hamburgers sold by various fast-food chains in Southern California. A Training in the Arts, with its written narrative, marked an important advance over those works. In somewhat stiff prose it tells of the education of two wealthy young brothers, and includes photographs of nudes acting out incidents from the story in an abstract, stagey way. The nature of these photographs reflects their source—while teaching a life-drawing class Cumming had begun to pose the models in increasingly narrative arrangements; since he was writing the book at the same time, he soon began to have the models act out incidents from the stories.

It was during this period too that Cumming began to produce his best-known works, photographs for which he would set up puzzling, illusionistic situations, sometimes involving elaborate sets and props, and record them with an 8-by-10-inch camera. The impetus for this work came from old movie stills and related material—lobby cards, publicity photos, and so on—which he had begun to collect in 1973. The name “movie stills” announces a paradox which to Cumming represented a contradictory wrinkle in the otherwise apparently seamless illusion of Hollywood glamour. Because he would rarely have seen the films they were taken from, he found the stills “mysterious fragments. . . . All you had was this little piece of evidence and you were led to construct in your mind what was going on.” Cumming was especially attracted to production stills taken in the ’40s by studio props departments to record all the sets on their lots. These photographs, taken from far enough back to show the edges of the sets, were usually contact prints from 8-by-10-inch negatives; their great detail emphasized the materiality of the sets. “You could see everything in those photos,” Cumming notes, “the rivets, the splinters coming off things, the tape—things you could never pick up as the scene whizzed by on the screen.”

Frequently Cumming’s works based on these movie images are narrative, reflecting a growing interest in fiction. In Blast Sequence, 1973, for example, three panels set one behind the other are apparently pierced by a projectile of some sort. The four images of the work are like stop-motion photographs showing successive stages of the blast, each taken a split second after the previous one. Fragments of material spewed out of the panels by the unseen projectile hang in the air in the first three pictures; in the final picture they have fallen to the ground. While this seems to be the record of four moments in an extremely brief event—the kind of technical photographic feat pioneered by Dr. Harold Edgerton—it’s actually the result of painstaking work, with Cumming suspending each chunk of material from wire to create the illusion. Aspects that appear to be random and uncontrolled—how the panels are broken by the unspecified “blast”—have in fact been precisely, obsessively determined. As Duchamp did in his 3 Stoppages Etalons (3 standard stoppages), 1913–14, in which, among other things, he dropped three lengths of thread each a meter long from the height of a meter, then glued the threads to strips of canvas according to the curves they formed, Cumming here demonstrates that chance is itself an order and that randomness can be recorded and recreated.

Acknowledging the nature of the deceit involved was an important aspect of these works for Cumming—“to do the illusion and then to unravel it,” as he puts it. He lets us in on his game by including the conditions of the event; the central panels in Blast Sequence, for example, are framed by lightstands and photofloods. This seemingly casual inclusion of elements that point to the mechanics of the illusion shifts the focus of meaning from staging the “magical” to revealing our susceptibility, and even eagerness, to be fooled. The deadpan manner of Cumming’s presentation quietly mocks the illusions, which in movies usually serve merely to deceive an audience.

Many of the pieces from this period rely for their illusions not on conventions of set design, but on characteristics specific to photography. In Of 8 Balls Dropped Off the Peak of the Roof 2 Fell on the North Side, 6 Favored the East, 1974, Cumming simply photographed the same setup twice, for the second shot adding four extra “falling” balls to the two in the first image; he then flipped the second negative in printing to suggest the two opposite sides of a house. In It Was Around Dinner When the Ball Went through the Screen, 1974, he scratched a grid pattern into a negative to suggest a screen over a window. Then, on a second negative of the same shot, he scratched in shards of grid flying away from a ball which appears to be breaking through the window—but which is in fact hanging quietly beyond the prop “window” in both pictures.

Cumming worked out the ideas for most of his prop pieces in elaborate diaries of sketches which he drew with a Rapidograph pen on 8-by-10-inch mounting board. (A selection of these diaries was published in 1980 by the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, Australia.) He would keep a page on his desk, and over a period of time—weeks or months—would sketch out ideas as they came to him. From these sketches he would fabricate the props needed to make each piece, and then photograph them. Frequently he would exhibit both object and photograph together.

Many of the ideas in these sketch pages are based on such familiar formal issues as grids and patterns, but in Cumming’s hands they always refer back to objects, and more particularly to objects of a familiar, everyday sort. The Modernist pure grid thus takes on the banal mundaneness of screen doors or checked flannel shirts, while allover patterning appears as exceptionally virulent, tacky wallpaper. Images of destruction and domestic mishap appear throughout these drawings as well. In one series Cumming proposes various kinds of wreckage, including handcrafted “modular wreckage units”—fake debris which could be attached to doors or walls; the idea is as weirdly funny as plastic vomit. In another group of sketches he treats letters and mathematical symbols as objects, much as he had in Sentence Structures. For one project, for example, he cut out large pieces of plywood according to the way various artists had written the letter a.

Cumming’s translation of signs into objects is mirrored by his fascination with silhouettes. In a sketch page from 1979, the whole sheet is filled with small silhouettes of a seemingly endless variety of common objects: coat hanger, saw, hammer, piggy bank, watchband, corkscrew, etc. Reduced to the same scale and presented in bare outline, they read like contemporary hieroglyphs. His more recent cut-paper silhouettes combine these flat cross-sections into narrative tableaux. In General Idea of Sound, 1982, for example, a hand (cut out of white paper and pasted to black mounting board) throws a coat hanger which pushes over a martini glass, spilling the drink. Cumming here uses comic strip conventions to express both the spilling liquid and the nonvisual experience of sound, which takes the form of a screechy zigzag of white, curling out from the base of the tipped glass.

Given physical substance, Cumming’s signs become subject to a system of contingencies that ideal abstractions are normally free of. They become vulnerable, mortal; they assume moral weight and responsibility in the process of taking on material form. (“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”) Conversely, objects in Cumming’s silhouettes are freed from the constraints of time and practicality by being converted into signs; they enter an ideal system of meaning, that of abstract logic. (One reason we feel free to laugh at the physical disasters that befall the obviously abstract characters in cartoons is that, because they lack materiality, they exist outside our moral order.)

To express the radical freedom we each have to define our own purpose, Sartre proposed the image of a tool designed to meet no predetermined function. In a parallel way, Cumming’s work suggests the existence of a spectrum of usefulness in which all objects have a place. A few of his objects have more or less practical uses, in addition to their metaphoric roles. For example, he made a painter’s easel with a sliding board built into its frame; when this board is slid forward the contraption becomes a chair. Cumming also designed a pen with a point attached to the shaft by a flat metal spring, in order to give the feeling of “writing with an extension of your fingernail,” he explains. Because he wanted the object to look “stupendous,” though, he never produced a version small enough to be used; instead he built a 5-foot-long model, which he showed along with an 8-by-10-inch photograph of it. “Some of them have only a marginal use,” he says of his objects. “But in relation to singing toilet paper dispensers and vitamin bottles shaped like Fred Flintstone, they’re often very usable.”

Cumming’s illusion photographs led him to write A Discourse on Domestic Disorder (1975), the second book in a trilogy begun with A Training in the Arts. The book continues his themes of mishap and destruction; in it two neighbors get together to watch ball games on TV, and begin to swap tales of minor childhood accidents—stepping on rusty nails, being bitten by mosquitoes, throwing a ball through a window, and so on. A dozen or so appropriate illusion photographs accompany the text. Cumming was surprised to find that readers identified strongly with the somewhat comical characters of the story. “I wrote it for objects,” he says, “and just happened to stick in these characters. . . . I’m not very interested in the surrounding phenomena. I’d like to do a book just about objects.”

Interruptions in Landscape and Logic, written in 1975, published two years later, and the third book in the trilogy, has a much darker tone. A wounded war veteran in a hospital in Banning, California, describes the bombing and invasion of a Pacific island—Bird Atoll—during an unnamed war against an unspecified enemy. Accompanied by elaborate maps of the island and detailed pen-and-ink drawings in Cumming’s “engineering” style, the story has the abstract generality of the “Hollywood, stage-set-y kind of thing” Cumming says he intended it to be. At the time the book was published, the memory of the punitive bombing of Vietnam by American planes was vivid. By alluding to the culturally ratified illusions produced by Hollywood—illusions which have provided us with a continent of stereotypes and assumptions about war—Cumming emphasizes the connections between the ideology of war and its real devastation, between idea and material ity.

By 1977 Cumming was growing weary of what he calls “the decadence of artificiality.” “It just felt kind of stale,” he explains; “the whole thing of building models, staging photos, had become a routine.” His last major project in California was Studio Still Lifes, 1977, a portfolio of 8-by-10-inch photographs of movie sets at Universal Studios. Cumming made no sketches for these pictures, but simply photographed the sets as he found them. Not surprisingly, the sets he chose resemble his own drawings and setups. A mammoth cross-sectional slice of a submarine, used in filming the Charlton Heston vehicle Gray Lady Down, has its direct counterpart in his cutaway drawing of a warship in Interruptions in Landscape and Logic. The project brought Cumming’s interest in Hollywood illusion full circle: he ended his stay in California making his own versions of the set-record photographs that had originally sparked his interest.

In 1978 he moved back East, to Connecticut, putting behind him what he calls his “Southern California fantasy.” “I moved back to New England to find out who I am and where I come from, and about all these memories I have from childhood,” he says. And Cumming’s work took a new direction: no longer setting up fictional photographs, he instead turned the camera onto the world. Finding the heavy 8-by-10-inch camera too cumbersome, he switched to a 4-by-5-inch model, “I just wanted to go flying out into the world,” Cumming remembers. The photographs from this period, intended to have been published as a portfolio entitled The Secret Life of Objects, continue to reflect his recurrent obsessions. But while the objects in them are still found sculptures, they are themselves as well—autonomous, with their own histories and functions. In earlier work Cumming might have imagined, constructed, photographed, and written about the wreckage of a plane crash. When he photographed a real plane crash, though, the wreckage retained an inviolable facticity; to the morality of the object he added the morality of history.

In all of his work Cumming demonstrates an intense commitment to recognizing the full ramifications of the relations between the mind and the world. His work is a didactic philosophical model of moral precepts. He speaks of his drawings as “proofs,” using the word in its mathematical or scientific sense. Through his dedication to craft Cumming has acquired an implicit command of the media he works in, expressed through the skills of the hand as much as of the eye and brain. His mastery of photography has enabled him to carry out a critique of it with an authority lacking in the work of other conceptual artists who turned to the medium for its supposedly objective recording abilities. By the same token, his analysis of the relations between signs and objects has been augmented by his versatility with the techniques needed both to fabricate his objects and to manipulate the signs of writing, drawing, and photography in ways he wanted.

Whatever medium he works in, Cumming returns again and again to certain highly charged motifs of an extraordinary formal and iconic richness. While these motifs are undoubtedly deeply rooted in Cumming’s personality and experience, their simple structure and complexly layered resonance gives them an almost universal power. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his repeated use of the motif of a spinning disc. In an image from a sketch diary it appears as a spinning saw blade hidden inside a log; and in a recent 4-by-5-inch photograph it takes the form of gigantic swirls of snow. A related motif is that of a spinning comma, developed from an entry in a 1976 sketch page on which Cumming drew spinning punctuation marks and speculated on the forms they would take. Predictably, he compared each to a common household object: the spinning hyphen became a lawn mower blade, while the period became a can opener and the comma became a knife. Dozens of other versions of the disc motif appear throughout Cumming’s published works. A casual consideration of the image may suggest a connection to the illusion discs that Duchamp filmed for Anemic Cinéma, 1924–25, but rather than demonstrating optical illusions, as those earlier discs did, Cumming’s motif becomes a giddy metaphor—a Zen ha-ha, pure energy, freewheeling creativity.

The disc motif is developed further in Equilibrium and the Rotary Disc, 1980, Cumming’s most ambitious book to date and the first he has published since returning to New England. At the center of the main story of the book stands the Rotary Disc, a monumental mechanical whimsy which sits precariously at the edge of a waterfall, kept spinning by the onrushing river at a rate just fast enough to keep it from going over the falls, but not so fast that it rolls back upstream. Cumming shows the Disc in several drawings, both in operation and in a sort of blueprint version. Framing this image is the story of the failing fortunes of an old New England industrial firm, Laconic Valley Precision Tool & Die, for whom the Rotary Disc is the “top-of-the-line unit,” holding “a position of respect in its field of metaphoric machinery.” Now, though, a large conglomerate wants to take over the company and turn the factory into an Industrial Revolution theme park.

The story then shifts to a small theater within the Laconic plant complex, in which mechanized models and dioramas trace an outline history of the Industrial Revolution and of Laconic’s part in it. The culmination of the show is a diorama showing six miniatures of the Titanic, which crash into a matching set of six identical icebergs. As the ships sink they leave behind them six great whirlpools—which “create enough suction to draw the six icebergs into themselves and are abruptly extinguished.” In a brief coda Cumming adopts a more distanced perspective on the processes of destruction and decay prevalent in his work:

When things have been flying apart in all directions with no chance of return; spinning and zig-zagging away at great speeds for this long, there’s nothing to be done but watch it pass, remember the way it once was, or call it all back. For, as long as there is life, the eyes close and the pieces drift back slowly from billions behind and billions ahead; drawn back by a willful current; together again in the center; each time infinitely different.

This meditation is accompanied by a thumbnail sketch in which the spirals used on the previous page to illustrate the whirlpools formed by the sinking ships are transformed into the sort of spiral patterns traced by decaying subatomic particles in cloud-chamber photography. The calm, somewhat resigned point of view here reflects the impact of a visit Cumming made to Fermilab, the particle-physics research laboratory outside Chicago. Invited to the lab to lecture on his work, Cumming found himself overwhelmed by the scope and complexity of the questions the scientists were considering. One of the most surprising things to him was the scale of the phenomena they were concerned with—the huge expanses of space and the infinitesimally small particles inside the atom. “But it’s all contained in the mind,” he says, “it’s kind of magical in a way; you can understand it . . . but it’s not tangible.”

A kind of nostalgia for the reassuringly mechanical world of industrialism appears in some of Cumming’s most recent drawings, which depict ruined artifacts of a factory culture, steel bridges and the like, set in moonlit landscapes—much as early Romantic artists would show the crumbling castles of a misty feudalism. During the early industrial period, “things seemed so concrete and so sure,” Cumming says; people dealt with the world

as if it was a system of gears, and the whole thing could be built as a model. But since the 1850s, the high point of the Industrial Revolution, things began to get off on this more ethereal plane. So maybe dealing with the Industrial Revolution is not only satisfying an urge to tinker and make watches and make objects, but a return to a surety, that things work on this simple order.

Since Equilibrium . . . Cumming has produced a steady stream of large charcoal drawings, many of which incorporate themes he has explored in the past. In one, Jackknife Boy, 1980, the edge of erotic violence in many of his works comes to the fore, as a jackknife-figure with flat metal arms and legs sits leaning against a wall, its half-open blade an enormous, ominous phallus. Other drawings exemplify his interest in objectifying symbols. In Inlay: Worksheet for Molar Marks, 1981, three geometrically idealized, toothlike forms are arranged in a staggered line, each with a different sign on its top: a cross, a kind of X, a capital I. The reference is both to the patterns formed by the cusps of teeth and to typewriter keys.

Typically, several of these new works refer to drawing itself, both as a process and as a set of conventions. A large cone suggests an animate pencil point, independent of both the pencil shaft and of any controlling hand; in one untitled work from 1981 the pencil-point cone is seen in huge magnification, from a low angle to the page on which it is apparently drawing. Trailing smudgy black lines—which it has presumably just drawn—the cone looks like a crashed plane that’s just plowed across a field, or a wounded beast trailing blood behind it.

Cumming’s narrative interests are continued in these works as well. “Some of the drawings are little stories,” he remarks; often these stories are told in three or four parts. One such series is about what Cumming calls “the creation of a myth.” In it he shows a small boat in a storm with a sail that looks like a ghost; people on shore might see it as such, he speculates, and develop a supernatural explanation for it. Cumming then recreates the event as if for a museum exhibit, with an explanatory drawing of a silhouetted oarsman included to show how the illusion was created.

Most of these drawings are framed by borders, with stylized title plaques drawn in at the bottom. In Cumming’s earlier work such devices referred directly to conventions of mechanical drawing, but they have become increasingly complex, especially in drawings he made while living in Japan on a Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission fellowship. “The pattern, which was a very pretty border design, begins to overwhelm the drawing inside,” he notes. “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.” In the same way, he says, “a DNA pattern can be written out in terms of numbers, but if the numbers go wrong, it’s a cancer.”

Cumming considers his involvement in myth and what he terms “religious perception” to be an extension of his work with perception and illusion. He is now working on a book which he intends to be the second in a trilogy begun with Equilibrium and the Rotary Disc; in it questions of myth and religious belief are interwoven with depictions of industrial development. In the story a hero of mythic stature falls into a cavern; while there he talks with God and sees visions of the past and future. In this respect the story examines “what happens when perception goes off by itself and maybe goes a little wrong,” Cumming explains. When the hero emerges he founds a religious colony and factory complex similar to 19th-century Utopian communities. Then—as in the cults of Jim Jones or Charles Manson—unethical impulses pervert the original vision of the group’s founder, leading to destruction and chaos.

If either side triumphs in the struggle between chaos and order, if the Equilibrium Disc goes over the falls or spins madly back up river, the delicate balance of existence will be tipped, with disastrous consequences. Cumming expresses this in an exceptionally pointed image that he has presented as both a drawing (Monuments Made Sense, 1982) and as a small wood sculpture. In both, a beehive and a bomb are balanced on opposite ends of a seesaw, which tilts toward the heavier bomb. As a result a jar of liquid—milk, perhaps—in the center tips over, spilling its contents. This simple image, with the force of an archetype, suggests Cumming’s growing pessimism about the immediate uses of technology. His metaphoric machines have an almost quaint humanism when compared to the deadly fantastic devices of nuclear warfare: Cruise and MX missiles, dense pack, hardened silos, particle-beam lasers, and killer satellites. The United States and the Soviet Union have built up vast stores of weapons that are intended never to be used, but rather to serve as symbols of the potential destruction they could cause; they have a curious status—Moloch as monument, tools for which the only real function is symbolic. In this context Cumming’s symbols-become-objects and objects-become-symbols take on particular relevance.

Cumming questions the systems of order we impose on the world; by finding situations where they break down, he reveals how fragile reality is and how much it’s based on shared assumptions and definitions. Over the past fifteen years he has challenged a progression of conventional systems of order: first dealing with the relationship between tools and objects in general; then questioning the supposed objectivity of photography, and by extension of movies; then examining the rhetoric of war; then focusing on the fictive abstractions of science and the explanatory systems of myth and religion. (His frequent references to extreme weather conditions—cold, tornadoes, whirlpools—present another kind of violation of the “normal” rules of the natural world.)

Throughout his work Cumming has focused on the tension between the abstract and the material, the ethereal and the mundane. “When you’ve catalogued all those neutrinos and quarks and so on,” he remarks, “you’ve still got to deal with coffee cups and tables.” Through his command of a panoply of media he has been able to examine the effects that the transformation of an image can have on meaning. In a recent charcoal drawing a triangle scoops up symbols and then squeezes them out in three-dimensional form. “I was using that as a metaphor for the way my mind works,” Cumming says. “You scoop up a lot of fragments of reality—the motion of a hand, a conversation here, the sound of something, the look of something—the little pieces. And then you squeeze them out in a different form.”

Charles Hagen is a writer and photographer.

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NOTES

1. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes by Robert Cumming are taken from interviews with the author conducted over the last year.