Situating Presence in Absence


  • JD Malat Gallery's current exhibition, Presence in Absence by Ian Cumberland, got me thinking… I have rarely seen installation and painting used together in this way. The artist is using assembled paintings and installed objects to explore ideas of the self, bringing together technology, mass media, culture, and control. The work projects a modern listlessness, a 'why bother' feeling, in the face of an algorithm driven world.They complete one another, the paintings are (technique-wise) perfect, but the installations provide the necessary bite, the intellectual backbone. The paintings are merely elements assisting the effect, used in conjunction with the wire fencing, neon signage, carpet, sound and video loops on analogue devices to achieve the full intention of Cumberland's vision.


    So, faced with the task of writing the inaugural review, it led me to think two things:


    1)     How new is this?

    2)     Can you see anything like it in the capital today?


    Embarking on the former question, where has painting been used together with installation?  I wondered, with the very hazy image of an artwork I'd seen in a book resting just out of reach at the tip of my memory… it depicted a beach or something, with yellow and black boats placed on the floor in front of the canvas. With this tenuous description entered into google, and a not inconsiderable scroll through irrelevant images, I was presented with the exact artwork, what a feeling! Staring back at me was the work of Jennifer Bartlett, a superb artist ranking among America's most influential after 1960.


    The work that most concerns this entry comes after 1984, where she becomes interested in combining painting and objects. In a 1985 NYT review of her show at Paula Cooper Gallery, Michael Benson remarks upon the "blown-up Monopoly-like houses, enamel-painted wood boats, plywood swimming pool, flagstones, a wood and a chain-link fence and a concrete sea wall and dock" that are positioned in front of her landscape paintings; through doing this, Benson says, "Bartlett throws out a host of clues, and every one of them is ominous." For the (brief) theoretical element of my research, I found this important and useful marker for determining what installation art was, from the Tate:In installation art, the whole situation in its totality claims to be the work of art.This put words to my main gripe with describing Presence in Absence as installation, as each piece is self-contained.


    In Cumberland and Bartlett's exhibitions the works are still very much individual from one another, united by a central theme. Bartlett's objects are crucial in presenting those ominous clues and questions, they enhance the painted image, they enhance the experience. With Presence in Absence, the same thing is happening, the assorted objects are asking the questions. While Bartlett's work is dealing with this idea of home, pleasure, and panic; Cumberland is thinking about mass media, voyeurism, and control.

  • Both artists are highly talented with the brush; Cumberland’s portraits are hyper-realistic and rich in detail, while Bartlett’s painterly work has been compared with Cezanne, Monet, Hopper, etc, yet they both insist on exploring the world outside of the canvas. Perhaps their similarity has something to do with the artists’ shared interest in the postmodernists, Benson here says that “Bartlett starts out with a Postmodernist doubt about absolute originality and the existence of the self,” and when I asked Ian about how much postmodernism influenced him, he replied, “quite a bit really, it’s all poststructuralism which I quite like. I think that’s just the way I am, the way I view life in general. When I came across the poststructuralists, it clicked. All that postmodernism really interests me, the idea of deconstructing things.” This, at the very least, has filtered through into the title of his most complex work, The Illusion of Self. Fair enough then, the first question has been answered with a firm but interesting ‘no, this is not new’.


    Moving to the second question, can you see painting paired with installation, by one artist, in the capital today? A search through revealed that yes, you can, and it’s at Simon Lee, called Toby Ziegler: The sudden longing to collapse 30 years of distance. What is happening here is more true to that Tate definition, a whole room situation, with paintings dotted on every wall of the gallery, quietly sitting with each other for 10 minutes, before a 5-minute film projection engulfs the room.


    The paintings are strange, distorted recoveries of images Ziegler lost on an unresponsive hard drive 15 years ago, some are figurative oils of Dutch flower paintings, others are sci-fi abstract landscapes. Ideas of technology and data start to seep through, the link between the two exhibitions begins to emerge. The projected film is where the link really starts to take shape, entitled Mutant Algorithm, which you can watch on the Simon Lee website, if you can’t make it to the gallery.


    It’s essentially a film diptych. Ziegler has fed images on the left projection into a ‘similar image search machine’ and presents the results on the right projection. The impact of this is intense and bizarre, aided in no small part by the noise/melody that accompanies it, speeding and slowing with the immense number of images being shown. A few examples: when Ziegler presents the search engine with a Pollock, the algorithm throws back hundreds of images of huge crowds of people and then people vomiting; when he presents some Constable-type clouds, the algorithm returns images of people vaping, missile launches, and forest fires.


    As a result, Toby Ziegler has submitted all trust for the film’s outcome in the algorithm, choosing only the select few works that he feeds the machine. This bears resemblance to one of the first works you encounter in Presence in Absence, Panopticon. In this work, Cumberland’s model looks into the middle distance whilst laying, dressed up, surrounded by mirrors. Every element of her figure is viewable, and she appears powerless to react or care. The photoshoot for the picture is made visible, looping on an analogue television left of the canvas. Disrupting the video are the words: TRUST. IN. THE. ALGORITHM.


    Cumberland and Ziegler are both using this combination of painting and installation to explore mass media, technology, and control. The availability and ease of modern technology is all encompassing, the media in Ziegler’s work dictates the outcome, taking away control from the artist, whilst Cumberland’s work shows the modern individual, whose appetite to care has been stripped away in this 24/7 mounting atrocity news cycle world.


    In attempting to situate Presence in Absence, the work of Jennifer Bartlett and Toby Ziegler show us that this is neither new nor localised, but it does represent a powerful way of getting meaning across. Whether it is with the self-contained painting/objects of Bartlett or the all-encompassing technological installation of Ziegler, Cumberland’s work is situated in a unique groove of contemporary art.



    Picture Credits:

    Jennifer Bartlett, Sea Wall, 1985

    Jennifer Bartlett, Yellow and Black Boats, 1985

    Ian Cumberland, The Illusion of Self, 2020

    Toby Ziegler, The sudden longing to collapse 30 years of distance, 2020, Photo: Ben Westoby

    Ian Cumberland, Panopticon, 2019/20




    Toby Ziegler: The sudden longing to collapse 30 years of distance

    Art: The unexpected from Jennifer Bartlett, by Michael Brenson, NYT 1985

    Jennifer Bartlett Sea Wall ­– Locks Gallery

    Tate ‘but is it installation art?’ by Claire Bishop