“Pencils, Ashes, Matches & Dust” by Donigan Cumming

In Donigan Cumming’s new book* Pencils, Ashes, Matches & Dust*, 2009, which draws its contents from his exhibition “Kincora,” 2008/10, the black-and-white photographic portraits arc into a current of drawings. In the drawings, there is an unfolding of image into a multiplicity of images, gathering together into a central theme of winged figures, where, woven into the fabric of these pages, seven brief, cutting texts, rendered in both French and English, sound out deepening aspects of context, an element of recalling the Stations of the Cross. Cumming’s field of endeavour in image is established in his first text in which he tells of a neighbourhood around Kincora Street in Montreal, razed to the ground by developers in the 1980s, scattering its residents. It speaks of how he followed this Diaspora of exiled Kincorans, adding, in that deepening sense of context, “Most of the people who lived there are now dead.”

Cumming’s selection of 10 photographic portraits: an old woman sitting atop a bed, holding a doll, a man standing against a curtained backdrop carrying a sign that reads “Peace on Earth,” a man sitting hunched over in a small room, turned away against all things, staring vacantly into an impenetrable middle distance, and together with others, a man dressed in socks and underwear standing in a dishevelled room and holding up large suitcases. The portraits are drawn from his first and founding photographic projects where he brought the group together as a cast of players in a loosely framed social documentary, exclusions from the social fabric acting out versions of their own lives. While presenting these stark, unforgiving realities, the documentary sets out to challenge to its very core the received wisdom of that genre with an intrusive photography, a photography that Cumming said in 2000, “stares…contains a blur of vision that says ‘I’ve seen enough’ but insists upon returning to the subject.” Using these portraits as guides, Cumming first traces the images upon translucent vellum paper, takes them into raw sketching, adds paints, his own fingerprints, works dust and debris into the pages and, finally, in scanning them, presents us with, as he said, “a mannered set of circumstances, a world beyond the photograph.”

In sets of pages where a few photographs give out into the drawings and texts mark the way, we come upon two portraits–the man with the suitcases and the man sitting alone in his room–that wend their way into his central theme of winged figures, first roughly drawn in diverging forms and finally emerging in variations of fully formed “Black Angels.” In one instance, the man with the suitcases is set against a background of raw, mixed colour fields–black into white, into blue, yellow into green, his disturbing figure drawn with stunted wings of violent red. In the proliferations of the man in the room we come upon a malevolent, tormented figure, a furious wing flying up into the page–half man, half mythical beast–with the word “ALIVE” printed as if a scrawl were arching over him. In the many drawings that are not winged figures, we see a woman with a doll before us forever silenced, the word “replace” stencilled vertically down the page as if a distorted requiem, see the man against the curtained background described in crazed lines erupting out of his form, his sign “Peace on Earth” leaving the impression of holding out the begging bowl.

Cumming’s texts, articulated with a brutal, exacting precision, take us into his world. Along the way, they lay bare his beginnings as a shy, hesitant photographer, the pathway opened to him by one of his own subjects. They tell of his critical stance upon a precipice of sorts, take us into the ambiguous nature of archive, relate a key realization that came to him that pervades all his work, speak of an ambivalent relationship with his players, and carefully describe the manner in which he examines what he considers the paradox of the image.

The totality of this book comes directly forward in two facing and concluding pages. These comprise a full panel of frames of individual winged figures, “Black Angels,” and other drawings, all in white lines against pitch black with only splashes of muted colours. It is here that Cumming has reassembled his cast of players in a netherworld–not of ghosts, or phantoms–but a terra incognito, where his players, now broken, numinous presences are situated in a conflicted, nightmarish theatre that burgeons with an all-pervasive sense of “no philosophy, no question, no being, no nothingness, no refusal, no may-be.” (Antonin Artaud, Watchfiends & Rack Screams, Exact Change, 1995).

All Cumming’s books are grounded in exhibitions–*Pencils, Ashes, Matches & Dust *finds its originating source in “Kincora.” However, as with all these volumes, he does not simply look to reproduce the exhibition material. Instead, he sets out to explore and experiment along the lines of differing nuances, placing before us new dimensions and perspectives for us to turn in our hands.

Overall, the material in Pencils, Ashes, Matches & Dust, as with the exhibition “Kincora,” marks yet another point of departure in Cumming’s projects. However, each of his projects joins into a complete and coherent body of work that calls to mind what he wrote in his book Continuity and Rupture, 2000, “When I was young, I thought of the importance of changing gears, and doing something new. Now I accept the fact that I am driven by major, unresolved questions that I answer differently at different stages in my life. Oddly enough, that realization seems to have led to more experimentation, not less.”

Chester Pelkey is a critical and literary writer working out of Saskatoon, SK.

Pencils, Ashes, Matches & Dust by Donigan Cumming, Quebec: Editions J’ai VU, 2009. 48 pp, $14.95

Volume 29, Number 2: Marcel x 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #114, published May 2010.

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