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Robert Cumming.

MIT LIST VISUAL ARTS CENTER

Massachusetts artist Robert Cumming was featured in Boston this fall in three concurrent exhibitions: a major retrospective of photography, works on paper, sculpture, and painting at the Museum of Fine Arts; a small show of drawings and two sculptures at the Howard Yezerski Gallery; and an intriguing new installation piece at MIT, entitled The Blackboard Brain, 1993. With his darkly humorous manipulations of both language and image and his eccentric investigations into engineering, Cumming created a dark, gridded environment. While in residence at the List Visual Arts Center during the month of August, he painted the ceiling, walls, and floor of the approximately 576-square-foot Bakalar gallery with blackboard paint and laid out an organizing grid in white chalk. To this he added a variety of chalk sketches, sculptural pieces, word images, and diagrams to suggest a three-dimensional erasable worksheet. Broken chalk, protractors, a sawhorse, a ladder, stencils, and paint cans were scattered about as references to the tools of the artist.

The Blackboard Brain evolved over a period of five months as major props were rearranged, chalk images added and erased. He transformed the environment not only during his residency but via instructional faxes sent to the curators during a two-month stay in Kyoto, Japan. The gridded black walls, punctuated with 103 small windows, were gradually filled with thumbnail sketches--some of which Cumming drew in himself, while others were copied by resident staff from cartoon faxes. The windows included doodles of signature skulls and artists' palettes as well as telephones and Sumi wrestlers.

Cumming's shaping of the irrational into the rational was evident in the carefully stenciled quote that circled the walls. Selected from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the passage describes a French man-of-war anchored off the African coast and aimlessly and incomprehensibly "firing into a continent." Phrases such as "there was a touch of insanity in the proceeding" were meticulously fitted between continuous, ruled lines.

A preoccupation with subtle transformations in scale resulted in converting a small alcove in the Bakalar gallery into a three-quarter-scale, black and white, diagrammatic, 3-D translation of van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles, 1888. Cumming's mundane identification with the Dutchman was noted in such subtle touches as hanging his own black T-shirt on a fabricated clothes hook and substituting his stained coffeemaker and battered transistor radio for the washbowl in van Gogh's painting.

Every wall of Cumming's megagrid was loaded with content--often enigmatic, fragmented, and lyrical. One wall was a working calendar of the months of August through December. A small blackboard/bulletin board complete with shelf, chalk, erasers, and pushpins contained references to the process of creating the installation as well as personal mementoes. A photocopy of Bedroom at Arles (marked to scale), recent critical reviews of his MFA show, selected faxed cartoons, poems, and letters on hotel stationary were among the items pinned to the board. On top was stenciled the cryptic message, "Chalk Dust = Memory Lost." The Blackboard Brain was a cleverly planned and impeccably crafted self-portrait and a fine complement to Cumming's "Cone of Vision" retrospective. Francine Koslow Miller
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Title Annotation:MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Author:Miller, Francine Koslow
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Words:514
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