Nailing it: Robyn Cumming tries her hand at sculpture and video

Robyn Cumming: Undone (2007). All images courtesy the artist.Robyn Cumming: Undone (2007). All images courtesy the artist.

Interview by Talia Shipman

For almost 10 years, Toronto-based Robyn Cumming has produced images that are just as likely to confound and discomfort as they are to make viewers chuckle. Taking cues from traditional studio portraiture, and clichéd nature and stock photography, Cumming often uses the body as a prop, placing it against strange or decorative settings. The ways in which people try to assert their individuality – through hobbies or by exaggerating physical characteristics or wearing unconventional dress or ornamentation – is also examined in her work. It’s fitting, then, that this conversation with fellow photographer Talia Shipman took place at Pinky's Nails, a salon in downtown Toronto where, after settling on a marbled design with black tips (Cumming) and a turquoise pattern (Shipman), they talked about working digitally, giving up control and feeling “aesthetically overwhelmed“.

Untitled, from the series “Lady Things”: Robyn Cumming: Untitled, from the series “Lady Things” (2008)Robyn Cumming: Untitled, from the series “Lady Things” (2008)Talia Shipman (TS): You are producing sculptural work for your upcoming show.

Robyn Cumming (RC): Yes, it’s part of a bigger, three-dimensional wall piece. It’s sort of a bizarre Cyclops face on wood. Originally, it was a photograph of objects, but then I realized that it should be three-dimensional. I’m taking all of the photo's content and re-creating it on a larger scale. In the original photo, there are fake nails, but now everything is ten times the size. There may be video pieces, as well.

TS: You’re mainly known as a photographer, but have you worked in other media before?

RC: I haven’t worked in either before outside of constructing small sculptures, which I then photographed. It makes me a bit anxious because it’s all stuff that, technically, I don’t know how to do. I have to hire people to do it and then oversee it. I’m constantly asking to see samples, and asking to change this and that. It’s this strange thing where you don’t feel like you have control over what’s happening.

TS: I think that it will start to flow in time. It’s all part of the process of learning and experimenting. But, it’s amazing how working in different media allows you to think more broadly.

RC: Suddenly, there are too many possibilities!

TS: For the last several years, I’ve thought of myself as a “photographer” but lately I’ve been experimenting with sculpture and video and collage and all sorts of mixed media – things I actually used to do before going to “photo school” and became a “photographer”. But then I realized, Wait...I’ve always done this. This is in my bones.

RC: We were in quite a rigid “photo” program. And now, photography doesn’t even exist in the same way we were taught to understand it.

TS: I think it was really great in a way because our program forced us to think conceptually, and in the context of consistent, cohesive bodies of work rather than one-off experimental photographs. I appreciated this until recently, when I started to have a hard time thinking outside of that structure. Or, at least, I did for a while. It’s just about experimenting and finding what works for you.

RC: I’ve struggled with that, as well. I think it was almost too uniform. We were taught primarily by much older white men, so they would discuss images of, say, suburban sprawl, and then show us 200 examples of suburban sprawl that all looked relatively the same. It’s that tradition in photography of rigid cohesion, which is now quite an old school, or an even outdated, approach to the medium.

Robyn Cumming: Sweaty Petals, Marble Wall, from the series “Frisette” (2010)Robyn Cumming: Sweaty Petals, Marble Wall, from the series “Frisette” (2010)TS: Or, everything looks almost the same, but with one or two variables. Thinking outside of that organizational and conceptual structure can be challenging to understand and sort through after working in one way for so long.

RC: This is the most anxiety I’ve ever felt over any process or body of work, trying to find the links and make the relationships. Everything is a lot less straightforward. And, I’m moving forward on all these fronts so I have different people making things for me and I’m constantly checking in to see how things are going. You just hope that your sentiment translates in your very clunky and chaotic descriptions. I’ve been making a lot of diagrams though…like blueprints.

TS: If I’m correct, you shoot only film. Do you then do digital processes, like scanning your negatives and doing post-production in programs like Photoshop? Do you manipulate your images, like the ones of the hands in your “Frisette” (2010) series?

RC: Well, I’ve sort of had to learn [those programs] recently. I used to print at Toronto Image Works, but then they closed the mural darkroom. Now I scan the film. The hands were actually shot coming through walls or curtains. The petals in Sweaty Petals, Marble Wall (2010) from that series, for example, had to be hung from individual threads. So, there is manipulation, but it is very minor. That image is actually two negatives of the same scene with varying depth of field stitched together.

TS: I think there is still a romance to using film. Some people do appreciate and recognize the quality and artistry in it. But, after that, I think it’s fairly commonplace to print digitally now.

RC: I’m not as stressed about crafting the perfect print anymore. I’m working with digital video for the first time and it was very easy to shoot stills with the same camera. I ended up shooting tons of film and then realized the work involved in getting that to a good print stage could be spent on crafting the exhibition. It was actually easier to re-shoot everything digitally. I teach this stuff in University, but have been reluctant to embrace it myself until recently.

TS: Your learning experience was totally analogue, while I was right on the cusp.

RC: Photography has a strange relationship with technology. Many people obsess over the apparatus rather than the thing you make with it. Everything is flipped. My students come in to Ryerson with digital cameras and then, by second year, they all buy large format analogue cameras. I think it’s important to continue to understand and engage with that process when studying the medium.

Robyn Cumming: Manicure on Marble, from the series “Frisette” (2010)Robyn Cumming: Manicure on Marble, from the series “Frisette” (2010)TS: You have a few photos in your last series that have “done” nails.

RC: Yes. Little fancy things on them.

TS: Did you get them professionally done?

RC: No, they were pre-manicured. I actually just bought a bunch of press-on nails from Japan online for another piece I’m working on. They have bizarre patterns and you can get them in the mail!

TS: I feel like I can’t even keep up. I feel out of the loop and overwhelmed all the time! I feel like that’s pretty common for our generation.

RC: I feel aesthetically overwhelmed by all of the options I have for my physical self. We should be much more aesthetically interesting than we are, considering what our options are. But then, maybe we’d all look insane.

TS: What is the theme of your upcoming show?

RC: Originally, it was about visage – representations of face – but now it has become more about physique/the body, essentially, and ruminations on representation and materiality. But, I would say it’s the funniest work I’ve ever made…to me, at least. I’m finally making work that I would want to see.

TS: Did you hold back because you thought maybe it wouldn’t appeal to a broad enough audience?

RC: (Laughs) Erin [Stump], whose gallery is hosting the show, calls my work “challenging”. But, my work has always been, I want to say, a little too “beautiful” for me. Or, maybe it was more beautiful or seductive than it was affecting.

TS: Would you say the new work is more conceptual?

RC: Not necessarily more conceptual, but perhaps there are more layers in the show as a whole. It’s what I want to make and what I want to look at. It’s probably the most honest body of work I’ve ever made. You’ll see relationships between the new work and, for example, “Frisette“, but this work is definitely funnier. It’s also about looking – about engagement with art objects and having them implicate you in the process of engaging with them, which has always been interesting to me.

PostscriptTS: I think honesty is one of the hardest things to achieve because we are so influenced and affected by everything around us. Art is also so subjective, and honesty and truth mean different things at different points in our lives and careers. Finding your voice as an artist is an ongoing process. Where we work, the people we encounter, the places we go – those things, literally, can’t not affect us. In a way, they shape us and our constant understanding of our world and of our work.

RC: Even just understanding things you’ve made, which sometimes doesn’t happen until much later.

TS: Sometimes you look back at work you made ages ago and realize that there are common themes and threads that you weren’t conscious of at the time. I find that part of the process so interesting; the piecing it all together.

RC: Yes. When I was preparing for our conversation, I was thinking about that a lot. In fact, the entire upcoming show is really based on a photograph I made but set aside two years ago. I’m finally ready for it.

Postscript (above): Cumming's manicure ended up costing more than Shipman's, even though Shipman's was more detailed. Cumming's nail polish started to chip after three days, while Shipman's manicure lasted two weeks.

Robyn Cumming's exhibition Bad Teeth will be on view at Erin Stump Projects in Toronto from May 2 to 26, 2013.


Talia Shipman is a photo-based artist living and working between New York City and Toronto. She is also the creative director of CART, an organization dedicated to the international promotion of Canadian artists.