Ian Cumberland’s ‘Once Removed’

People are often attracted by the apparent realism of Ian Cumberland’s paintings. In fact, the paintings are more than realistic: they are hyper-real. Their surfaces record flesh and fabric, pattern and texture, with a minute and unnatural attention to detail. In this and other respects they recall the heightened realism of cinema and theatre, both of which require the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. We voluntarily agree to ignore the artifice of what we’re looking at for entertainment’s sake but also, significantly, with the hope of gaining some valuable insight into what is real.

Each person in a painting by Cumberland in ‘Once Removed’ is an isolated presence, usually alone in a domestic setting. But both person and setting share a quality of theatricality. We seem to catch the individual at a moment of doubt, perplexity or hesitation, in the midst of an ongoing drama. The settings they occupy are in one sense very ordinary, but also starkly lit and visually enhanced. It is hardly surprising to find that the artist constructed sets and posed his models in them. So far, one could say, he is creating an illusion of normality in the manner of film and theatre but, just at this point, something else comes into play.

That is, when he seems to be emphasizing the everyday reality of the images, he introduces visual puzzles and contradictions. The idea of a heightened, even exaggerated normality that tips over into something alarmingly different is often found in the work of filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch. It’s also evident in the photographs of Gergory Crewdson, one of several contemporary art photographers who use cinematic production methods, setting up carefully arranged miseen-scènes with performers, props and lighting.

Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Stan Douglas are other prominent examples, but Crewdson, especially, is drawn to the idea of the intrusion of the strange and unsettling into a suburban normality, as is Cumberland. There is some common ground between his work and that of all the filmmakers and photographers mentioned, but specific aspects of the slightly unnerving pictorial atmosphere that he generates chime particularly with Crewdson, Hitchcock and Lynch.

Not that he is consciously echoing or drawing on these particular figures. Rather it seems reasonable to infer that their work helped shape his imaginative vocabulary as much as and perhaps more than painters. There are, though, painters worth bearing in mind in relation to specific aspects of his work. The Belgian artist Michaël Borremans (who initially studied photography and also works in film), for example, imbues his representational works with a comparable sense of disquiet and mystery. Another Belgian, the surrealist René Magritte, is also pertinent, as is the great painter of urban alienation, Edward Hopper.

On a more conceptual, theoretical level, Cumberland does note the influence of Guy Debord’s 1967 critique of consumer culture, ‘Society of the Spectacle’. Representation, Debord argued, has replaced the actuality of social life. In a society predicated on consumption, having eclipses being. Appearances rule. Debord died in 1994, but Cumberland situates his ideas in the digital age. One feels that the individuals in his paintings are, as the title of the show suggests, at one remove from reality. Their lives are filtered through screens. Digital technologies and pervasive connectivity have accelerated and enhanced the isolated, fetishistic consumerism that Debord diagnosed.

Mirrors and glazed surfaces recur in Cumberland’s work. Several mirrors are represented in the paintings, and real mirrors feature in the installations. ‘Looking Through Glass’ is arranged so that we only see a painting via its reflected image. ‘Doppelganger’ offers an alternative, distanced, reflected view of a painting. The woman in ‘Entanglement’ faces a trio of mirrors on a dressing table, but they quite obviously do not reflect a consistent picture. The composition suggests multiple readings of a scene in a way that may well allude to the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. As could the outstretched forearm and hand that intrudes at the lower right. The addition of this detail recalls Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment about a cat in a sealed box. Simply put, the implication is that in the strange world of quantum reality, the cat can be both dead and alive until an act of observation precipitates it into one or other state. Similarly, Cumberland’s protagonists are caught in a mirror-world of endlessly deferred reality, perpetually unsure about what is actually real, seduced by limitless choice.

In his installation ‘1% cosmic background radiation and an infinity of possibilities’ he explicitly refers to this state of uncertainty. Although previously predicted, cosmic microwave background radiation, a signature of the Big Bang, was confirmed by chance in the 1960s by researchers trying to eliminate oddly persistent background interference. The interference was the universe itself. Perhaps the suggestion is that, as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’ and what is real is relegated to the status of a nagging, background static.

In this installation and elsewhere, Cumberland also harnesses the metaphorical potential of another physical phenomenon proposed in theory and eventually confirmed: black holes. By definition, we cannot see a black hole because nothing, including light, can escape its gravitational pull. If mirrors and glassy surfaces in his paintings stand in for the dominance of the screen in the digital world, the black hole is the digital nightmare: the virtual eclipses and replaces the real. It’s the point of no return.

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is an art critic.

Exhibition Press Release

Once Removed
6 August – 24 September 2016

Millennium Court Arts Centre is delighted to present Once Removed, the first solo exhibition in Ireland by Irish visual artist Ian Cumberland. Cumberland is known for his stunning large oil paintings, particularly his award winning ‘heads’ and has been awarded the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s ACES funding for the development of this new body of work.
Once Removed is a modern day tale of consumerist alienation and the ‘society of the spectacle’ where authentic social life is replaced with its representation leaving little beneath, a process that has accelerated in the age of social media and selfies. The painted works ruminate on the individual, their understanding of self, and the disparity between appearance and reality. To do this Cumberland produces tightly framed magnified, fleshy faces (‘heads’) that meet the viewer’s eye and works depicting solitary figures confined in a series of uncanny domestic spaces. Instances of surreality punctuate the work.
The beautiful, youthful figures of Cumberland’s cast appear fixated on superficial attractiveness. They exude glamour but their perfection is belied by a mottled complexion and malaise. Some appear at a remove, reflected in mirrors, which have a long association in art history, not least as indicators of the illusory nature of painting itself, but also vanity, and in the mid twentieth century, psychoanalytic self-recognition. Even the surreal black holes that absorb the pictured inhabitants are mirrored, like the surface of smart phones or tablets. These scenes possess a hallucinatory stillness and are heightened by the artist’s vivid use of colour and attention to detail – in fabrics and carpets.
Cumberland’s paintings are technically brilliant and realistic in style. The painted surface performs a sort of alchemy that transcends the photographic source material, making this symbolic depiction of the contemporary condition more, not less believable and absorbing. Cumberland also explores painting’s mode of presentation through complex installations as well as producing new sculptural installations (including the recurring black hole motif) that mark a departure into three-dimensional work.