WHEN THOMAS ZUMMER clicks into view inside a Skype window, he looks a bit like Darwin or a scholarly Hells Angel with his chat-window-filling beard and thin-framed spectacles. Back in the '80s, Zummer was Foucault's research assistant and a student of Derrida. Nowadays, he's a philosopher, historian of digital technology with a soft spot for robots and reference systems, a Wooster Group collaborator, and artist of singular intentions.
"What is an image?" he asks rhetorically as a statement of intent, explaining, "I'm interested in how the world works based on how images work." It's a deceptively simple pursuit, like so many great philosophical inquiries, and the artist has chewed on it for years.
His teethmarks are found all over a partial retrospective of works I should have done, a collection of drawings, sculptures, and paintings currently showing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Feldman Gallery. Assembled after Zummer's June residency at PNCA, the works, a portion of which are making their public debut, span the last three decades, from the 1980s to the present.
On the surface, the show comes off a bit scattershot: Plans for the invasion of California. Portraits of robots that Zummer's encountered over his years of research in the field. Designs submitted for Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Village, incorporating a 200,000-volt Tesla coil and 50 life-sized cast-iron sculptures of Jesus—placed here and there to absorb the bands of electricity arcing from the massive coil.
But Zummer's wide-ranging flair for the fantastic and whimsical is equaled by his deep exploration of the image (the true glue of the show).
Take, for example, "Archival ink-jet print of a photograph of a drawing of an electrostatic photocopy of a light bulb," a dark, grainy image of a light bulb, produced through the titular manufacturing process, starting with a photocopy of a light bulb, which was faithfully reproduced in the artist's hand and later photographed and transferred to paper via ink-jet printer.
As with similar process-based works included in the show—drawings of photographs, drawings of pictures of text messages—Zummer focuses on representations of representations, calling attention to the rift between an image, the object it displays, and how we perceive that relationship.
This line of thinking can appear elusive in terms of consequence, but when Zummer extends it to symbols of digital culture, the direction solidifies. His portraits of robots parallel the aforementioned representational dissonance, presenting what Zummer calls "faceless faces," or mechanical re-creations of the human form and human action, but without the human motivation and its bundled nuances.
The conversation between these seemingly disparate bodies of work underlines the leaps we make in accepting digitized projections of the self as authentic—not asking the viewer to mourn aspects of the human experience that get lost in a person's digital shadow, but to pay attention to how that shadow is perceived.
Zummer further drives home his meditation on perception in pieces like "An Essay on Potatoes..." a scholarly essay about the treatment of potatoes in important philosophical texts, written in thin, slanted cursive on a series of the starchy nightshades.
"Five minutes before the exhibit opens, they are potatoes," says Zummer, "when the show opens they're art, and then when the show closes they're once again potatoes." And whether it's potatoes or robots or pictures of pictures of pictures, Zummer asks his audience to consider how the world is represented, how those representations are perceived, and what those perceptions say about people. Where to go from there is up to you.