Narrative: Alec Cumming

Alec’s vibrant paintings transport us into tropical scenes where our senses are sparked in an immersive, nostalgic experience. His time spent abroad has formed long-lasting impressions that infiltrate his work; familiar objects merge with abstract shapes to create ambiguous narratives. We talk about Alec’s exploration of language and how this creates a visual dialogue in his work. We also discuss how light acts as a sensation, and the magical feeling he gets when he finishes a painting.

strong minds of contemplation

Strong Minds of Contemplation

It’s a balancing act and a bit of a dance, a chase: It’s a physical process.

You’ve spent a lot of time in India, how has their culture influenced your work? And how did this opportunity come about for you? 

It’s interesting because I never went to India to paint Indian things. I originally went to India because a client at my first solo show in London in 2010, really liked my work and invited me to spend three months in India – which was a great opportunity! When I first got there, it was the colours, the sounds and the smells which I found most interesting. An assault of visual stimulus hits you when you step off the plane which is overwhelming, but I loved it. After returning to the UK after three months, I ended up going straight back where I stayed for three years. 

At first, I found looking at Indian art quite challenging because it was a language I didn’t relate to. At the time, I was more about space, colour and creating form on the surface of a canvas rather than narrative. What I found in India was the exact opposite: it was about the story. 

I can see elements of both eastern and western cultures. Why is it important for you to capture different cultures?

When I came back, I was still digesting the visual stuff I’d picked up and was trying to translate that into my art. I became obsessed with this idea of language and the painting being language – I learnt Hindi when I was there. Language has always been an interesting thing for me; physical forms on the surface of the canvas pushing things into places – which goes back to narrative. When I was there, I would sit and listen to other artists speaking in Hindi – I didn’t need to understand the language, I enjoyed the fun and pleasure of getting lost in the rhythm of the conversation. In many ways that’s what I wanted my paintings to become.

You have described your work as a visual dialogue – can you tell us more about this. 

I wanted the paintings to translate around the world without a language that comes from a specific place. I was excited about putting observational languages from India into a western setting. Since then I’ve seen more of the world, and you realise that you create a visual dictionary of objects and paraphernalia that references places like; Sri Lanka, Cyprus, California. I want the viewer to find their own references through triggers of their own memories. There is narrative entwined with each scenario without it being too obvious: it unravels in front of you. 

cyrpus study

Cyprus Study

Is there a reason why there aren’t any people in your paintings? 

There are always suggestions to the figure – you might catch a glimpse of a limb, but it’s more of a presence of a figure rather than an actual figure. I want the viewer to put themselves in it – they’re the first layer of the painting, falling into it. 

I like the fact that there are plants, foliage, references to swimming pools and objects; some things are clear, but some things are questionable. Some objects have become so abstract that they’ve lost all meaning and have instead become tools in the painting. 

Your pieces appear as mundane moments mixed with escapist scenes. How do you decide on certain moments to portray?

Sometimes, the starting point for a painting might be a moment I can remember but that could be a square which references a blanket. I’m not trying to pinpoint a definite moment, it’s more linear than that – it doesn’t have a start and a finish. It’s more of a sensation rather than a representation. 

There is narrative entwined with each scenario without it being too obvious: it unravels in front of you.

Within that sensation is this idea of light – what does light represent to you? 

Light comes from the sense of place really. Early on I realised that I like hot climates and tropical scenes, and what I like most about these places is the light. In India it was the idea of saturating light that really resonated with me. It’s so bright and stark that it almost bleaches out all colours and only strong colours pop through; it makes the air vibrate – it’s so intense. It reminds me of summer in Deli; 40 degrees and dry heat with the sun beating down on you – you can almost feel it vibrating and that’s what I’m trying to grab in my paintings. I want it to be that intense, bright resonation, that almost makes you feel dizzy, but as a playful and pleasurable experience. 

sun rays

Sun Rays

What do you wish for viewers to take away from your work?

Viewers feature in the work in a subconscious way. I find it fascinating when people talk to me about my work; some people get reminded of things they’ve done, or places they’ve been. It doesn’t matter if that’s not somewhere I’ve been; it goes back to having a pan-global language where it calls out to them. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I like playful, positive work. It’s meant to be this pleasurable experience – which I hope is a good thing. 

Are you selective of what artwork you keep and sell, and do you find it hard to let go of a piece? 

It’s great because for someone to buy my work and put it up on their wall, it means they absolutely love it. For whatever reason they see something in it or they see the story behind it. I’ve never really felt precious over work in that way – It’s part of the process. Once it’s finished, inside that painting is the process and that’s exciting to look at. I spend a lot of time thinking about what is a good painting and what’s a bad painting. 

Language has always been an interesting thing for me; physical forms on the surface of the canvas pushing things into places 

How do you know when a painting is finished? 

There’s a cathartic feeling when you finish a painting; it almost feels like you’ve exhaled after holding your breath for the duration of making that painting. You get more and more welled up, and then all of a sudden you see it for that split second and everything comes into focus. It’s a momentary thing and if you miss it you go too far and it’s dead, but if you don’t go far enough you haven’t brought it to life. It’s a balancing act and a bit of a dance, a chase: It’s a physical process. 

dancing to new forms

Dancing to New Forms

What is a typical day like for you?

Wake up, coffee; on the way to the studio I walk the dog. At the beginning of the day I spend an hour looking at what I did the day before; sitting, thinking and going through sketch books and photographs. There are probably about three or four hours of painting time, and if something’s going well I’ll carry on. I have a messy studio! I have a huge table which is like a palette! I used to work on one piece at a time, but now I have a few bits going at once. It’s an organic routine that changes – it’s not stuck in concrete. The dog (bless him) is very patient, he just sits and watches me. 

I want it to be that intense, bright resonation, that almost makes you feel dizzy

Where is next on your travel list? 

I’d love to see more of Sri Lanka, and more of the Mediterranean. So long as there are more beaches, more pools and more palm trees! But who knows! When I was much younger, I was obsessed with going to the Lake District and Cornwall; it’s about going to a place and absorbing it and coming back to the studio to make work. Place always affects the work differently; it changes my work and who I am as a person. 

What’s next in store for you?

I’ll be at The Other Art Fair in London in March 2020, and I’ll also be at The Other Art Fair in L.A in April – which will be my fifth time there.  I’ve just been awarded a residency in Tuscany with a gallery called Banditto Galleria in June. I’ll be in the studio working on whole new bodies of work for these things and I’ll hopefully be doing some more work with The Edit Gallery in Cyprus where I just had a solo show. 

To view more of Alec’s work  and follow his journey …

Instagram: @aleccumming1

His work is also available to purchase on Saatchi Art

evening soiree
Evening Soiree

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s