Torreya Cummings in her Oakland studio. Graham Holoch/KQED
Torreya Cummings in her Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Redefining Pride: Roaming Through Torreya Cummings’ Off-Camera Histories

Redefining Pride: Roaming Through Torreya Cummings’ Off-Camera Histories

Welcome to KQED Arts’ Redefining Pride: The East Bay’s Queer Artists, a series highlighting the work of queer-identified artists in Oakland and Berkeley. Through printmaking, photography, painting and interdisciplinary work, these visual artists celebrate people, histories and causes often sidelined within mainstream presentations of the queer community.

For many, the phrase “landscape art” evokes paintings of rolling hills and photographs of desert horizons. But these are two-dimensional renderings of three-dimensional spaces, spaces replete with sounds, scents and textures. For interdisciplinary artist Torreya Cummings, such flattening is counterintuitive; landscapes are multisensory terrains meant to be explored.

“I spent a lot of time outside as a kid,” Cummings says of her rural upbringing in the Central Valley. “Landscape has never seemed like a static thing. It's an environment that you're in, and it's complex. You're not just looking at it, you're experiencing and interacting with it.”

Erasing the hard lines separating "urban" and "rural" in Cummings' Oakland studio.
Erasing the hard lines separating "urban" and "rural" in Cummings' Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

This attitude helps explain the artist’s multidimensional work, which tends to invite viewers to enter a temporary site, whether a built environment or a site-specific performance. In a sense, she creates experiences for people to roam through like a real landscape, though on a much smaller scale than a forest or field.

A recent multimedia installation commissioned by and on view at Oakland Museum of California for just under two years (it closed at the end of April 2018) encapsulated that approach. In Notes from ‘Camp’: AKA Transdimensional Ghost Town Discotheque, the three-dimensional environment married a desert-town-inspired shanty with a (frankly) fabulous iridescent interior. Videos of shimmering crystals, streams and fish played to the sounds of 1970s disco.

Detail of the interior of Torreya Cumming's 'Notes From "Camp": AKA Transdimensional Ghost Town Discotheque', 2016-18 at the Oakland Museum of California.
Detail of the interior of Torreya Cumming's 'Notes From "Camp": AKA Transdimensional Ghost Town Discotheque', 2016-18 at the Oakland Museum of California. (Courtesy of the artist)

The work provided a way for Cummings to play out her curiosity about the supposed opposites of “rural” and “urban” spaces, partially inspired by a foundational 1964 text written by theorist Susan Sontag that discussed the concepts behind "camp," an attitude expressing a penchant for kitchy, over-the-top aesthetics. Sontag poses "natural" in strict opposition to camp's connection to the "urban" and to "artifice"—two notions firmly associated with modern queerness, as is camp itself.

Cummings' sparkling hut is a spirited, if ambivalent, rejoinder to the essay; the installation not only allows contradictions to coexist, it seemingly celebrates them all. The installation also made tangible the perspective of a queer person who has traversed both rural and urban realms and felt, in both, equally valid senses of belonging and detachment.

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Cummings in her Oakland studio.
Cummings in her Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

At first glance, finding queer belonging in rural areas appears improbable—like Sontag's stark contrast may be altogether too accurate in real life. It's true that urban centers often offer safe(r)-havens for the LGBTQ community (though this safety remains relative to race, class, ability and other forms of privilege). At the very least they enable social connections that are harder to come by in rural areas. And San Francisco, Oakland and the broader Bay Area boast a well-established queer history, where traditions of socializing through nightlife and bar or club culture run deep.

Torreya Cummings, 'Hard Rocks, The West is known for nothing if not for its hospitality,' 2014.
Torreya Cummings, 'Hard Rocks, The West is known for nothing if not for its hospitality,' 2014. (Courtesy of the artist)

In this area, where avant-garde drag is the norm and there is often greater understanding of gender diversity, Cummings says, “It feels like... whatever I am, I’m not the only one. And not just now, but historically: there is a place carved out for a sort of miscellaneous queer existence, and that is part of the reason this place feels like home for me."

Nonetheless, Cummings has experienced her own internal push-and-pull of rural familiarity and urban connection. Having grown up in the small community of Sloughhouse before moving to Davis, San Francisco and, later, Oakland, she says that for a while, she felt torn between regions. “When I was in the country, I was like, ‘Get me out of here!’ And then when I was in the city, I was like, ‘Actually, I miss that other place,’” she says.

But, as the many layers of Notes from ‘Camp’ demonstrate, the artist is interested in letting “at-odds” elements exist in tandem. “The power of artmaking is that you can have contradiction,” Cummings says. “You can have ambivalence and you can have multiple meanings existing in one place.”

Cummings constantly considers the power structures producing specific historical narratives. Historical representations, whether in a museum, a textbook or even a public park, are human-made, and thus reflective of political agendas and cultural biases. These narratives are usually limited in scope—and limiting for us as students, viewers, readers and, more broadly, as citizens.

Cummings in her Oakland studio.
Cummings in her Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Although queer culture is certainly a prime example of a marginalized history—and a personal interest for the artist—it's only one example of the many narratives often omitted from mainstream depictions of the past.

“If you have the opportunity to question one aspect of a received narrative, then there’s also an opportunity to question other aspects of it,” she observes. “So, I might be looking for signs of queer pasts, but that’s not the only thing on the periphery. In trying to explore the world that’s off-camera, there are going to be other things that are relevant to that story.”

A diorama sculpture in Cummings' Oakland studio.
A diorama sculpture in Cummings' Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

In fact, Cummings isn’t bent on setting the record straight (so to speak) for the sake of accurate inclusion. “At some point, [my research] veers into a sort of synthesis or fiction, where it’s based in fact, often, but it doesn’t stay there,” she explains. “The research forms the frame for the project, and then something else happens.”

That something else results in built environments where visitors can view the night-sky constellations of previous eras (in one work, before the founding of Silicon Valley; in another, the time before the Gold Rush); performed recreations of found photographs (of 1970s gay porn, as well as 19th-century saloon culture mixed with a Dietrich film); a group of "sailors" bouncing a neon-green ray of light between mirrors; and an obscure recreation of a folded 1939 San Francisco casino.

Torreya Cummings, 'Sailors Signalling Other Sailors,' 2015.
Torreya Cummings, 'Sailors Signalling Other Sailors,' 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)

One of the complexities Cummings attends to is how strongly to identify or position oneself as an artist or a queer artist, and how that also can be revealed in the work itself—or not. “What does it mean to be a queer artist and how is this separated from being an artist generally? I do think oftentimes, you’re called upon to either perform or deny whatever your difference is,” Cummings says, which could risk repeating both the limited and limiting narratives she steers to avoid.

“A lot of times in my subject matter, it’s not totally clear or specifically queer,” she says. “But I think the lens, the perspective I have, the things that I’m interested in and the politics I have—the way I want to be in the world, are all affected by that. [Queerness] doesn’t have to be the subject matter, it can be the approach.”

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