Kingston, R.I.

Robert Cumming

University of Rhode Island

The imagery of Robert Cumming’s photographs is wit, but his true subject matter is perception; Cumming has defined a special space, within which he creates his imagery. It is the area between the extant world and our perceptions of it, between being and seeing that most interests this young California artist.

By building objects, creating situations or constructing illusions and then taking photographs of the results, he exerts total control over the world he presents to his audience. Cumming depends on habitual clues, typical references and almost universal sets of standards for photographic viewing (at least in our own culture) to make his situations work. In one black and white set of two photographs, he shows us a block of wood and a nail driven into it. Although both photographs appear to show the same object at medium and close range, one is labeled an “enlargement” of the other. In Cumming’s photographic world, trimmed down to the basics that he chooses to give us, we have no relatable references beside the other photograph in the set. What appears as a photographic enlargement is actually a huge block of wood with an equally large nail carved from a broomstick—he thus photographs an entirely different set of objects, actually a large re-creation of his initial still-life. We read physical expansion as photographic expansion.

Cumming is a photographer out of necessity—that is, his illusions work only in the photographic image. Mainly concerned with sculptural concepts, his work is object- or environmentally oriented. Some of his situations are, however, visual “one-liners,” obvious visual puns that pale quickly, like his Watermelon/Bread still-life.

In a broad overview, however, the work suggests his role is more than that of a visual punster. His constructions, especially when considered before the photograph, define his character as a tinker, a jack-of-all-trades, a bricoleur. He seems as much at ease inventing a new pen or applying for a patent on an easel-chair he designed as he is conceiving miniaturized stage sets or choreographing an activity. His creations are so varied and entertaining, one might unfairly hope to see them in the raw, that is, without the intervention of his camera. Removing that technological distance, his constructions and inventions would be more directly perceivable, occupying our own space, set within the context of the real world. They would lose the safe, sleek coolness of the photo image and become harder to perceive, hotter to handle.

Second guessing any artist is a useless endeavor. Cumming wisely uses the irreality of black and white photography, its falsified perspectives and controlled references, to comment and cause us to reflect on the tenuous nature of our visual capabilities. Creating a separate world, a subsystem, which in some way mirrors the real world of our own experiences is, after all, what art has always been about.

Ronald J. Onorato