College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

An alumna at work

UC Riverside alumna returns to bring a new, photography-rich exhibition to UCR ARTS
By Devany Harden, Student Writer/CHASS Marketing & Communications |

Curator and writer Sara Bay Gachot returns to Riverside with a new photo exhibition, Robert Cumming: The Secret Life of Objects on display at UCR ARTS Sept. 26-Feb. 2, 2020.

Gachot, a 2012 graduate with a Master of Arts in Art History, wrote her graduate thesis on photographer, sculptor, painter, and printmaker Robert Cumming. Seven years later, as a working curator, she has teamed up with Cumming and the George Eastman Museum to bring to life the first major museum survey of the artist’s work in nearly twenty years: The Secret Life of Objects. The exhibition includes Cumming’s earliest photographs, documentary-style photos from the Universal Studios backlot during the 1970s, and commissions for the 1984 Olympics and MIT.

Discovering Robert Cumming

Gachot first learned of Cumming’s work in 2009 as a research fellow in the department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“I looked Cumming up and the first image I saw was ‘Theater for Two, Easy Analogies’ and was instantly taken with it,” she said. “It was enigmatic and funny.”

Gachot said she appreciated how Cumming played with perception and the camera. “He realized early on that the camera disrupts how we think we see,” she said. “When an object is frozen on the page, it seizes the mechanics of our perception.”

Life at UCR

Gachot graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Media Arts from Temple University. In 2012, she went back to school for her master’s in Art History at UC Riverside.

Gachot was inspired by the development of a new film museum. “I gravitated towards the cinematography aspect of film,” she said. “It combined my love for the visual arts - both moving and still. I wanted to get back into it, and that’s why I came back to get my master’s.”

Gachot chose UCR for several reasons. “I liked the history of the professors who taught there. There was a photography museum, it was close to Los Angeles, and it seemed really photo-centric. It had this really strong Creative Writing program too.”

Gachot was grateful for the influence of History of Art Professor Susan Laxton, who supported Gachot’s interests. Gachot also took creative writing classes which helped to prepare her to write her graduate thesis and taught her how to write for the arts.

Meeting Robert Cumming

Gachot chose to make Cumming the subject of her master's thesis. 

“I felt like I had this problem to solve,” she said. “Nobody had done a book on [Cumming] in a really long time. There was a lot of potential to get his name back out into the public. From the beginning, I thought about doing an exhibition and a book.” 

Before her second year at UCR, Gachot contacted Cumming and arranged a time to meet him at his home in Massachusetts.

“He gave me a tour of his studio out back in an enormous old barn,” Gachot said. “We stopped at various sculptures he’d made that I had seen in his photographs. Nearly every wall displayed his work, photographs, wood block prints, ... and that same cactus from “Theatre for Two”, this time in color — which is the first image people will see in this show.” 

“We talked about his work and all kinds of other things — his love of history, teaching photography in the 1970s, riding bikes in Massachusetts, and the really great bookstore just ten miles north of town. After 4 1/2 hours, I told him I might be bothering him some more, and he was OK with that.”

Since graduating from UCR, Gachot has written an essay for the 2016 Aperture book Robert Cumming: The Difficulties of Nonsense and curated The Secret Life of Objects. The UCR alumna is also organizing the programming for an art book fair in Los Angeles called Acid-Free. The book market takes place November 1-3. She is also working on a project that transforms an unpublished book she wrote into shorter essays and stories.

About the Exhibition

Beginning this Fall, The Secret Life of Objects will stretch across two floors of the California Museum of Photography. The exhibition follows Cumming’s journey as an artist, with a focus on the 1970s. Guests will see his early exercises in photography, as well as his evolution into a mail artist and photographer who moved from the Midwest to Southern California with “an eye for the peculiar.”

“The disparity between first impression and the dissolution of illusion is a phenomenon very particular to the medium of photography,” Gachot said, “and through Cumming’s camera eye, it becomes a rich field of play”

Highlights of the exhibition are rarely-seen sketches by Cumming, objects from his exploration of nautical architecture, a collection of Hollywood studio continuity stills (photos which studios used to maintain continuity between non-chronological scenes), mail art postcards, and photographs of sculptures that Gachot calls “perceptual puzzles.”

Much of Cumming’s work intends to portray the physically impossible so that it appears visually accurate. In an interview with Richard Armstrong for the book Robert Cumming: L'oeuvre photographique, Cumming said of his art, “There are always clues in the pieces; a means by which one can unravel the fabrication.” 

A Few Words of Wisdom

Gachot gives aspiring curators the same advice she received from curator and writer Charlotte Cotton. 

“Just start making shows,” Gachot said, “It can be in your living room, or at an abandoned building, or smaller galleries. Just start putting things together.”

The Secret Life of Objects is on view September 26th, 2019 through February 2nd, 2020.

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FEATURED PHOTO. Robert Cumming, "Reverse Refraction," 1974. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. © Robert Cumming