Lady Things

Published July 26, 2018
Words by Clea Christakos-Gee
Photos by Robyn Cumming, 2007 and 2009 Flash Forward Winner

Concealed identities. Billowing sheer fabrics. Polished manicures and wigs. Ominous gesture. Those are just a few of many choreographed features of the photographs by Robyn Cumming that make up the series "Lady Things", which tackles issues of representation and challenges narrow tropes of femininity. Dark fantasy and unspoken narratives come to life thanks to provocative styling.

Camouflaged by floral arrangements and props leaving only the suggestion of human presence, Robyn Cumming’s pictures are nearly portraits.  The Toronto-based artist explains the importance of anonymity in the series and her intention for the subject to become an object or “a functionless prop”. “It is easy to turn a person into an object once you have broken them into parts and there is a long history of depicting women in this way, as components of a set, as incomplete entities,” she says. The work plays with “ideas surrounding femininity and how those ideas can usurp the individual and, in doing so, empty them of subjectivity”, she adds.

When asked about the way these elements work to communicate in each image and across the series she points to the references embedded within each photographed object. “I am particularly interested in materials that have appropriated culture and tradition and thus creating references so removed they become trivial. Things like sequins, plastic pearls, fake flowers…things that appear to be like, but are actually nothing like, the real thing. Inferior things,” she notes. These are key to the articulation of the Lady Things series, as Cumming worked to “overwhelm the image with femininity, this includes, gesture, lighting, pose and material. All of the accoutrements of ladyness”.

Through the evolution of her practice Cumming has found balance and harmony between her refined aesthetic and offbeat sense of humour.  “I think the work needs to be visually seductive off the bat to hook the viewer and then, once you’ve got them, there is room to be more subversive and sometimes, grotesque. It’s like coaxing a child with candy but less sinister”, she believes.

What are the different ways that photography can reckon with its history of objectifying women?

That attitude carries in her other endeavours, including teaching and curating. With her petite stature and sweet soprano voice you would not assume Robyn Cumming to be the most intimidating professor of the Ryerson Photography Studies program. Yet the general consensus among students — of which I was one — and peers at Ryerson University is one of enticed dismay, how does she do it? Her teaching combines unflinching honest critique with compassionate involved guidance, and her effervescent sense of humour is the ripe cherry atop the powerful creative mentorship which she serves.

Beyond her skill in lecturing, Cumming also works as the Gallery Director of the Ryerson Artspace —where I work as the Exhibition Coordinator—, a student and alumni offsite gallery where she facilitates and manages the annual programming. When asked about the weighted task of mentoring so many young photographers and the ways it can feed her own art making process, she mentioned that witnessing the creative problem solving of her students is likely the impetus of her learning as well. “Having to think critically and offer real consideration to other people’s projects as often as I do forces me to scrutinize my own work in much the same way – what would I say about this if I was on the other side?”

In recent years, besides traditional photography, Cumming has worked with animation, cyanotype, sculpture and more. I’m comfortable choosing the medium that best services the work. Because I’m trained in photography I tend to think within those parameters and use the photograph as a starting point but am happy to follow any and all tangents.”

Portrait Robyn Cumming

Robyn Cumming is a photo-based artist with a fervent interest in representation and a personal fascination with depictions of the human creature. Often employing humour as a strategy to transgress boundaries, she attempts to make work that is both wondrous while disconcerting, seductive while grotesque. In recent years she has undertaken a long-term investigation mapping the intersection between incongruent visual objects with an anthropologist’s eye. Culling anonymous, found, and historical photographs from by searching with the descriptions “bad” and “teeth, she is interested in the subjective language we use to describe, analyze, and ultimately categorize the content of an image.

Robyn received an MFA from York University and holds a BFA from Ryerson University where she now teaches in the Image Arts Department. She is Faculty Director of the School’s off-site gallery Ryerson Artspace.