A Pioneering Wizard of West Coast Photo-Conceptualism

Cumming released his first self-published book of photographs, “Picture Fictions,” in 1971. On its cover was a work that would become one of his most famous, “Watermelon/Bread.” In it, the titular fruit rests on a patterned plate in a cluttered kitchen. The scene would be ordinary enough if not for the flank of the watermelon, into which Cumming has nestled a slice of store-bought white bread like some absurdist domestic Excalibur. The picture became something of an aesthetic calling card, encapsulating his work’s goofy rigor and strange cool. His creations seemed to invite the question, “What kind of person would bother to make such things?” (Cumming had a pithy rejoinder to such lines of thinking, saying, in a 1983 interview with Artforum, “In relation to singing toilet-paper dispensers and vitamin bottles shaped like Fred Flintstone, they’re often very usable.”)

In 1973, Cumming made a discovery that would reshape his creative approach: discarded collections of old eight-by-ten continuity stills from film sets, detailing what scenes looked like in between takes. The pictures were strange and often vaguely haunting; the spaces in them seemed to have been hastily abandoned in medias res, though a prominently placed director’s slate betrayed that there was artifice at work. Almost immediately, Cumming was inspired to convert his yard in Orange, California, into a kind of rudimentary studio backlot, where he would make artificially lit pictures by night. An emblematic work from this period is “Chair Trick,” showing a chair at the end of a garden path levitating above a piece of plywood. It doesn’t take more than a second to notice that the “trick” in question is rudimentary at best, and that Cumming made no effort to conceal the mechanism behind his illusion: a pane of glass propping up the chair, causing it to appear to float.

“Chair Trick,” 1973.

“I don’t do it to be funny,” Cumming said, in a 1976 interview, of this kind of hamfisted perceptual trickery. “I think a lot underneath the humor is it’s about perceptions, different types of perceptions, and that’s mainly what I’m after.” He was interested in the visual effects produced by the camera but also by its corporeal corollary, the eye. In one image, “Quick Shift of the Head Leaves Glowing Stool Afterimage on Pedestal,” for instance, what appears to be the ghostly silhouette of an industrial stool is, in fact, a spray-painted picture, with the can of paint left in the frame to prove it. The camera is able to capture a certain kind of “afterimage,” Cumming seems to say, but it is nothing like the one produced by our eyes. The humor, and perhaps the pathos, of Cumming’s work stems from its recognition that the apparatuses we use to comprehend the world are fundamentally imperfect, and subject to easy distortions.

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