Presence in Absence

“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.” David Campbell, writer and curator.

JD Malat Gallery is pleased to announce Presence in Absence, a solo exhibition by Irish artist Ian Cumberland, from 7 th September to 5 th October 2020. Born in Banbridge in 1983, Cumberland is bestknown for his hyperrealist portraits of isolated subjects in detailed interiors, exploring themes of mass media culture, surveillance and the notion of the human ‘self ’.

Presence in Absence consists of installations that utilise portraits in a multi-part tableau, establishing a dialogue between objects. Cumberland’s works involve an assemblage of theatrical objects, giving rise to an acute degree of realism. Reminiscent of Brecht and his theatre sets, the individuals in Cumberland’s works are faced with a multitude of choices and possibilities and it is up to the viewer to decide what those choices will be. Although Cumberland begins the story, the audience finishes it.

Cumberland is meticulous with his choices, everything is precisely controlled from the colour palette, the outfits, the lighting and the overall set. This staging and organisation are a commentary on our society, how we are manipulated to believe in lifestyles and material goods. Get the Look 2020 perfectly demonstrates this by containing text that itemises the cost of every element in the staged scene with the neon sign reflecting our image saturated commodity driven world. The irony being that these themselves are objects within an art market. The woman is surrounded by objects of capitalist desire, get the look, the dress, the Persian rug. It is a command; we are being told what we should be wearing and how we should be living. Behind her, the television shows a still from some unidentifiable ravaged landscape, possibly caused by deforestation for the creation of materials, mass pollution in fast fashion, spurred on by our insatiable desire to get the look. The Black Hole paintings go a step further by taking a surreal sci-fi take

on our obsession with our phones, that they are black mirrors which distract us from our existence and transport us into another reality. This brings us right into the thick of the subject: presence in absence. We are here but not really.

Desire, Want, Need is also inspired by advertising with text included to guide the viewer towards meaning. Here, the figure is trapped by a billboard promising her happiness. In Viewer II we see a similar scenario where the model is lost rather than concerned, vacant and disengaged from her surrounding; a suggestion to the desensitizing nature of a constant flow of real time multi- channel networks. Every minute of every day, mass media pumps death, climate emergencies, and political horror into our screens, and all we can do is stare back, blank, unmoving, frozen by the 24-hour cycle of modern news and contemporary disasters: Trump’s love affair with deadly dictators, a polar bear clinging to some melting ice, riot police standing before burning buildings. Alongside the paintings are videos that refer to various psychology experiments that explore the illusionary quality of reality, consciousness and free will. This is most pertinent in The Illusion of Self, a self-portrait of the artist lying on a carpet. The landscape paintings in this exhibition came to being because the artist wanted to make a piece about the borders influenced by Northern Ireland and Brexit, however Cumberland now sees Divide as a general comment on the polarising nature of current politics.

Panopticon refers to Jeremy Bentham’s 18 th Century theory that power should be constantly visible and unverifiable, as well as Michel Foucault’s critique of this as a dangerous mechanism of power and surveillance. Cumberland describes how this work illustrates a figure trapped in a cycle of monotonous repetition. It is about our digital world, social media and filter bubbles.

In Cumberland’s words, he sees the new digital world as ‘an online echo chamber where we are confronted with online idealised versions of people aimed to create content to please followers where the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred’. It becomes impossible to distinguish between information and misinformation, socially engineered technologies which are designed to manipulate us to feel more engaged and connected achieve the very opposite; we become disconnected and we are turned into commodities through data collection sold to third parties and directed back at ourselves.

The works take on a life of their own, that goes well beyond the gallery space. By including outside objects in his paintings, Cumberland successfully achieves an impression of the outside world that penetrates his hyperrealist paintings. The paintings are therefore much more than paintings, they are settings of real life, somewhere between a theatre stage set and an imaginary universe that functions in and of itself. Cumberland’s genius shines through when he challenges conventional ‘painting’ and produces something wholly original and unique, transcending traditional painting as we know it and questioning representational strategies. It might be argued that the artist is seeking to create a different definition of realism in his work, one that incorporates voyeurism, an act that painting alone cannot fully achieve.

Cumberland is a creator of meaning. Faced with a multitude of components, the narrative is endless within the mise-en-scene. The props deployed are sometimes filled with irony or scepticism which accentuates the spatial and psychological containment of the figures within the rehearsed theatricality. This theatricality is further exaggerated in the painting through the effect of light, a light of such artificial luminosity 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.

What we see in Cumberland’s paintings appears initially to be domestic normality and unexceptional spaces but the more we look at the paintings, the more we see abnormal touches and unsettling atmospheres within these mundane interiors. The figures seem caught in moments of distress, panic or simply confusion, illustrated in a moment frozen in time. The subjects never look directly at us, they are there but not really, present yet absent. The subjects are caught in moments of escape from their psychological containment, similar to one experienced by people during the pandemic, we were there but felt elsewhere. This is Presence in Absence, a social commentary on a sociological crisis.