‘Recent Work by Ian Cumberland’

Encountering the work of Ian Cumberland is a peculiar, unsettling experience, as if the viewer has intruded into a ‘space’ and a ‘moment’ to which they are alien. Positioned as an outsider, Cumberland’s series of multi component tableaux seem to offer a viewing experience that falls somewhere between an invitation to eavesdrop and an unintended moment of voyeurism. This is paradoxical, after all it is generally accepted that on entering the gallery we indicate our willing participation in a well established and familiar ritual of cultural consumption, searching out art for its promise of entertainment or enlightenment. 

As the viewer traverses the carefully choreographed field of objects that constitute Cumberland’s solo exhibition, his first in Germany, we encounter a collection of individual artworks which, on first sight, seem distinct and self-contained, but which on further reflection, appear to gradually offer themselves as individual episode in a larger, more complex narrative. Though formally diverse, each work in the exhibition is presented in the form of an episodic tableau, its various components carefully staged to establish a dialogic discourse between objects. The work suggests that whatever meaning it might have will be constructed through the process of careful reading both its constituent parts and the relationships between them. And whilst most of the works in the exhibition seem preoccupied with describing conditions of enclosure, and insinuate a form of hermetic introversion, Cumberland repeatedly stages moments of rupture to this introversion. 

Whilst the configuration of the individual works in the gallery’s space is carefully organised to demarcate each artwork as a distinct enclosed arena; spaces separated off from the viewer and their engagement, the artist is also keen to signal transgression of this containment to imply their interrelationship and kinship with, not only the other works that surround them, but also with the wider social world beyond the gallery walls. Often this ‘outside’ world is registered via the inclusion of a television monitor, both as an actual object incorporated into an installation, or as a representation within the pictorial space of a hyper- realistic painting. Functioning as a portal between the interior scenario of the artwork and an exterior social reality, the television monitor’s screen acts as a conduit transmitting evidence of other places and other times; either permanently fixed as an image in a painting, or in the repetitious duration of a looped DVD. The transaction between the signifiers of interior and exterior space, and their mediation via the TV monitor, is reiterated in the careful choreography of the individual tableau across the gallery’s space and the central role performed by the painted component within it. 

I am reticent to name the painted component of Cumberland’s installation simply a ‘painting’, though it clearly is. This reaction is in response to the way Cumberland deploys painting within his practice, which seems to me to indicate a resistance to the convention of allocating primary cultural status and commercial value to that particular object that we recognise as a painting. In the context of this exhibition, to allocate objects we recognise as paintings a privileged status within the assemblage of other objects would inevitably diminish the importance of the non-painted elements, and be detrimental to the reading and understanding of Cumberland’s work as a whole. Whilst it is clear that the artist has a powerful facility to render naturalistic representations, for which he has already received praise and awards, it seems that the artist is signalling his willingness to explore how this facility might be put under pressure so as to yield a revived vitality through its interplay with other representational strategies. Beyond this, one can also detect a questioning the adequacy of the formal and conceptual resources of his own painting to represent the world in which he lives; indeed it might be argued that the artist is seeking to create a different definition of realism in his work, one that painting alone, can not achieve. 

To this end, it is worth reflecting on the role painting plays in Cumberland’s work, and its relationship with the other forms of representation he deploys. For many commentators it seems that Cumberland’s work is best described as a realist or even hyperrealist practice, no doubt due to the degree of verisimilitude he is able to achieve in his painting. However, the manner in which the artist deliberately places conventional painting under duress by presenting it in an atypical state or location, or demoting it’s status by deploying it as just another component in a more complex field of object signifiers, should alert us to the fact that painting as a privileged object does not seem to be much of a priority for Cumberland. This strategy is at work in The All Consuming Selfie, 2018, in which an un-stretched painted self-portrait drapes low over a propped stretcher frame, it’s presentation seemingly at odds with the degree of cultural status such painterly investment would normally accrue. So whilst Cumberland seems at pains to highlight his resistance to painting as the privileged carrier of significance in his art, it nonetheless plays a pivotal role in it. In this exhibition the painting is but one component in an assemblage of objects that establish an articulated field of signifiers, and prioritises the relational nature of the components to suggest a search for greater veracity and a different kind of realism, perhaps one more akin to that developed by Brecht. Rather than being content with a detailed resemblance of superficial appearance, Brecht sought to represent everyday life by looking beyond outward appearance to present people as ‘the ensemble of social relations’, connected to their society and its place in history. Brecht highlighted how social context sets the scene and informs our experience of everyday life, but his realism also sought to represent people as constantly contesting and in dialogue with their social and historical contexts. This interrogative and relational aspect of Brecht’s realism acknowledges that we are not free to do just whatever we want but that our choice of actions are framed by a wide, but limited range of options. 

Similarily, Cumberland’s apparent suspicion of his own facility to paint hyper naturalistic renditions of surface effects, has led him to develop a more complex, assemblage practice, one in which meaning is created across an articulated field of objects, of which painting is just one part, and which together with the other objects, contextualise and produce meaning. 

Though displaced as the sole carrier of significance, the painted component in Cumberland’s work does perform an important role. Freighted with it’s rich cultural history, painting is inevitably the viewer’s first point of engagement with Cumberland’s work, and the canvas, whether mounted on a stretcher affixed to a wall, presented free standing on a billboard like structure, or draped over other objects, it acts as the initial point of departure in the process of interpretation and meaning production. Often the canvas carries a painstakingly rendered image of an individual figure set amongst an assembly of objects to create a sense of containment, both of the painting as a physical object, and of the represented figure it carries. In False Flags, 2018, Cumberland paints a young woman standing in a domestic room, gazing out to the left side of the composition, her hand raised and flatly pressed against what we assume to be the interior surface of the room’s window. The woman’s look does not meet that of the viewer but is distracted off to the left, and out of the picture. This could be read as an act of deliberate avoidance, one that offers both an opportunity for scopic pleasure for the viewer, as well as a rebuttal as a result of the woman’s refusal to engage with the viewer’s look. But when the painting is viewed as an element within the installation, and the viewer’s field of vision is extended, we become aware that the young woman’s attention is apparently focussed on a drape of textile hanging from a wall-mounted flagpole adjacent to the painting. This ‘flag’ of un-primed canvas falls limply to the ground, it’s lower section stained by the black painted floor. The painting and flag are imprisoned on three sides by a high perimeter steel and barbed wire fence.  As to what or who the ‘flag’ represents is uncertain, but Cumberland seems to be playing a game of ironic insinuation at art’s expense. Despite the oppressive material presence of the perimeter fence, the structure gains a certain comic lightness as a paranoid, hyper-exaggerated parody of the roped–off barriers  ‘protecting’ artworks in galleries and museums. When the painting is viewed through the fence, the casual gesture of the woman’s hand now appears to be pressed up against the actual mesh of the fence. Such interpretative fluidity is further increased when the woman’s gesture is considered in relation to her gaze toward the hanging flag, and begins to register as a pledge of allegiance, but to what? 

In titling the work False Flags it seems Cumberland is playfully probing his own scepticism toward the belief in art as a virtuous activity, reminding us of its powers to deceive. In highlighting such deception, at a time when the term ‘fake’, has unprecedented currency within contemporary political discourse, is Cumberland hinting at his own suspicion of blind allegiance to a cause, including the redemptive potential of art? The systematic manner in which he constructs formal device to shift our perception, wrong footing us to rethink our interpretation of what we encounter in his work, is achieved by a rehearsed theatricality. In False Flags the assembled components reiterate a sense of spatial and psychological containment, as if the whole scenario was under the control of an unseen, external force. At the centre of each installation is a painting carrying the image of a single figure, depicted in an enclosed space. Other objects, arranged in relation to the painting, demarcate a zone in which a restrained scenario unfolds. These are characterised by a strong sense of theatricality, with objects deployed as props to set the scene for the individual figures depicted in Cumberland’s paintings, each seemingly caught in a moment of acute introspection. This theatricality is further exaggerated in the painting through the effect of light, a light of such artificial vividness that it could only be cast from a cinematic source, with the films of David Lynch or the photographs of Gregory Crewdson being the primary points of reference.

The scenes depicted in Cumberland’s paintings feign domestic normality, unexceptional spaces, which, though we may not recognise the specific detail of the scene, seem typical of a generic suburban everyday – but they are not. They posses an atmosphere that is both otherworldly and unsettling, and our encounter with them is experienced like an intrusion into something intensely private. The figures seem caught in what in science fiction is referred to as a stasis field, a confined area of space in which time has been stopped and the contents have been rendered motionless. This pause effect has resonance in the popularity of the time freeze visual effect known as Bullet Time which is used extensively in contemporary television advertisements and cinema.  The sense of time standing still permeates Cumberland’s work, his work Boom and Bust, 2017/18, is literalised through the interplay between the floating coloured bubble-like discs painted alongside the close- up of a young woman’s head painted on a wall mounted canvas and the cluster of ‘real’ floating coloured discs suspended in front of the painting. A cube monitor placed on the floor adjacent to the painting accompanies both elements, and plays a looped tape of a character repeatedly blowing and collapsing bubble gum bubbles. The confetti like coloured discs and the bored demeanour of the character on the monitor suggests the suspension of a moment of celebration, long past its best, trapped in a cycle of monotonously repetition. This seemingly frivolous scene is punctured by the combination of the work’s title, which refers both to the bubble gum performance presented on the monitor and as a descriptor of the boom and bust economic cycle of capitalism, and the line of text on the painting reading” Still they get away….” suggests both the inconsequential escape of the discs from the canvas and a more politicised dig at those who should be held responsible for the economic disaster of recent years, but still manage to “get away with it”. The interplay between the apparently private and personal experiences presented in the depiction of an individual protagonist in the paintings, and an external public realm, is primarily suggested by the role the act of looking plays in Cumberland’s work. As we have seen in False Flags, the interpretation of a character’s looking, is never straight forward, but shifts and extends in focal length from what initially seems intimate and immediate to a more displaced look that extends out and beyond the artwork itself. Cumberland not only aligns this strategy with his use of titles to connect with external social forces that suggest a malevolent controlling influence, as in Manufacturing Consent or Boom and Bust, he also choreographs the sight lines between the figures in each of the individual works so that they regard each other across the gallery space. By such means he establishes a network of looks: gazes and stares by which the protagonists in each of the painted scenarios appear to escape both their pictorial containment and the psychological introversion it implies.

David Campbell, December 2018

David Campbell is an artist, writer and curator. He is the founding member of the collaborative art group Common Culture and Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University.