Robert Cumming’s sly humor is on display in “Robert Cumming: The Secret Life of Objects,” a new show on view at the George Eastman Museum until May 28. The first major survey of Cumming’s work in 20 years explores the sculptor- and mail artist-turned-photographer’s use of the medium to reframe the physical world. Focusing on images he made mostly in Southern California in the 1970s, “The Secret Life of Objects” includes interventions such as a handwritten note taped to the front of a truck, which reads “A Truck Is An Object.” More often Cumming works at home or in the studio, photographing a still life comprised of a cactus and piece of cardboard cut in the shape of the plant, or a carefully staged tableau in which a chair and bucket seem to fly through the air. Part of the fun is that Cumming’s illusions are never complete—no effort is made to pass off the cardboard for cactus, or hide the wires and lights around the bucket and chair, letting the viewer in on photography’s power to mislead.
As Sarah Bay Gachot, the show’s curator, writes in a book about Cumming published by Aperture last year, “Through his images, it is clear that what fascinates Cumming about photography is its singular capacity for both depiction and deception—how it can serve as a tool for prying open the rules of language, revealing underlying discrepancies among perception, cognition, and definition, and pointing to the everyday arbitrariness.”