neil cummings

glass, knife and sandwich on a table

A cold overcast Thursday in March, it’s 1914. After a lazy lunch with Eva at la Rotonde I pick-up an old broken wine crate abandoned outside the cafe and carry it to my studio. The one on the boulevard Raspail. With a hammer I break the crate down and save a thin but broad strip from the bottom. It's split, rough and has nail holes but could work as the back-piece for a hybrid image-object I have in mind. I stack the rest of the crate’s components with a pile of wood in the corner.

I've been experimenting with drawing and painting fractured depictions of the world for some time. Depictions that refuse a single perspective and deploy an analytical compound eye to produce multi-point assemblies of people, everyday things and places.

With Juan and George, to help with these depictions we made cut, folded and glued cardboard models of things. Things like a head, bottle or a guitar, constructed from flat, angular planes to suggest space, shape and volume. Now I want to make an actual thing, a thing in the world made-up of representations of other things in the world. A sculpture. A sculpture of a still life.

While breaking down the crate one panel split, split along the grain of a knot. It's partly curved. I hold it up horizontally to the back-piece, cantilevered out. Close. By crudely sawing a few slices off I produce a segment, a segment of a circular table top. I nail the two pieces together, they’re not at right angles but I’m not bothered. It’s a bit wobbly so I add a small rectangular offcut to give the table top some support. A cafe table in front of a wall.

The table needs a glass. A workaday wine glass.

The glass is tricky. I draw a simple outline on a scrap of wood, with a saw cut as best I can around the lines and then it's easy with a handy kitchen knife to split away the waste to suggest the indentation for the stem. The thing is, it's way too flat. Dead. Dull. But it's also funny. It’s funny to be making a glass, something so thin, brittle and transparent out of a chunk of pine. With the knife I start slicing a curved chamfered edge. It’s good, it suggests shape and volume to the wooden glass, so I do the same on the base. Better. But it lacks detail. Then I remembered a gouge chisel I borrowed from someone, maybe Georges and put somewhere. After a while searching I find it buried in a drawer, it’s blunt but I’m able to carefully cut four parallel grooves on the body of the wooden glass to suggest flutes, the fluting. The pine splits but I don't mind. With the same gouge I cut a scoop on the base to wrap the back to the front. Hmm, it's getting even better. I prop it on the tabletop. Glassier. But still too flat.

I sit down thinking.

Absent-mindedly I pick up an irregular offcut and whittle a curved end with the knife. Wow. It looks like a slice of bread. It could be a slice of rye bread. But it’s also,... wooden. I pick up the gouge and rotating it almost vertically scoop a few dimples into the surface of the wooden bread-to-be. Better. It’s livelier. I scoop a few more holes, air-holes, there’s texture and difference. It’s done. I nail the wooden bread onto the table top.

Still Life 1914

Still Life 1914, Cement Fondu c1992

And like the punch-line in a joke, It needs a knife.

You need a wooden knife to slice the wooden bread. And how funny would it be to carve a portrait of a knife out of wood with a knife. Like some kind of mirrored pun, a pun refracted between object, material and process.

From the wood pile I extract a thin lath, and one-to-one start shaping the handle of the wooden knife. A couple of saw cuts and then with the actual knife I’m able to roughly shape the curved rounded forms of the grip and the squared-off toe. I lay the emerging wooden knife next to the knife I’m using for carving and oh, no, the lath is a bit short. Too short. There’s not enough wood to make a sharp pointed blade. Fuck. It’s too short. It just ends. But it will have to do. To make the appearance of a blade I curve it slightly then chamfer the wood on both sides to an edge, It looks good. Well, it’s too short. It just ends. But it looks ok. Like a child's toy. I nail the wooden knife on to the table next to the bread. Overhanging, like it could fall off. Maybe the knife tumbled and the tip broke.

In the corner of the studio there’s that pile of possibilities scavenged from the street. Wooden stuff. Interesting things and fuel to put in the stove when it's cold. There’s bits of broken furniture, dismantled crates, sticks, laths, wheels from a wheeled toy and timber scrap. Street detritus.

Scanning the wood pile I see a short fractured chair leg and suddenly, it looks like a very long salami! You know what would also be funny. It would be funny to put some sliced salami on the bread. Sliced wooden salami. Like for lunch. With the saw I trim three thin slices from the leg and place them on the bread to see. Too many, too crowded. I discard one. Perfect. I nail them on. Stacked sliced sausage.

That glass is still not right. Still too flat.

Remember those wheels, those little round wheels in the corner from a wooden toy. I snap one off the axle, prise the worn metal strip from the edge and offer the wheel up to the glass. To be the top of the glass, the rim. No. Too deep, too round, too obvious. I saw it in half and offer it up again. Hmm interesting. Very interesting. The glass has volume, roundness and a lip. I nail it on. It’s good but a bit wobbly. I pick up a woodscrap cut one corner off and nail it to the side of the glass, like a flattened profile but also a support for the semi circular rim. That works. I fix the glass to the back-piece with nails, just off centre, on the table behind the bread.

The thing is, that knife sticking out makes the image-object lopsided. It needs something for balance. In the pile in the corner there’s a length of simple moulding, a plain dado rail curved at one end having previously been cut to accommodate a water pipe. I hold it in place. It works as a dado rail on the wall behind the table and glass, the curved end adds volume and refracted circularity to the glass. I saw it to length and attach it. Nice. A real dado rail pretending to be dado rail in an image-object. Another pun.

I prop the image-object up, and step back. Look, think.

Now it needs painting.

A simple cream undercoat seals and unifies the disparate wooden components and hides the nails, then a slightly shiny grey-cream commercial paint covers everything. I add a mid-tone blue-grey oil paint for the table top, careful around the knife handle, same colour for the dado. I mix a tan for the bread, apply all over but careful round the gouged dimples to let the cream undercoat come through. I step back. Ouch. The tan tone of the bread is too close to the tabletop, the bread slice disappears. So I reapply the grey cream ground to the edge of the bread, to the crust, quickly, sloppily and it runs. It’s ok. The wooden bread now looks like a crudely painted picture of bread. A bit of red and a dab of blue in the tan produces a darker greyer hue to paint the salami. I step back. The salami is flat. I reach for a shiny commercial black paint, a few dots on the nail heads help. Like texture in the salami, grain, the sausage pops. And while I've got the thin brush in the black, almost instinctively, I carefully trace around the nail heads on the knife handle. Now they look more like rivets. Better. Done.

I step back again, look. Asses. The glass is empty. There’s a dead space in the image-object. The glass needs liquid volume. I mix a deep burgundy wine colour to paint it in. But no. Too obvious. I put the brush down. Thinking, I browse the studio and notice a wooden offcut and offer it up, no. Then I retrieve the other half of the cut toy wheel and try that. Too regular but could work. I saw a segment off at an angle and try it again, angled down like the surface of wine, beer or absinthe, or maybe the bottom of the glass. That's it. I nail it on, add undercoat and then the grey cream ground, and whilst I’m at it repaint the glass, some slops on the dado and the tabletop. It's fine.

That dado rail. Plain. I grin as I recall the strip of cheaply printed paper you can buy to paste to a wall to look like an actual wooden dado rail. Juan had found some somewhere and used it in some collages. So, I could paint the simple dado rail to look like a picture of a fancy dado rail. Another mirrored pun. With oil paints I quickly sketch some tromp-l’oeil carved lozenges and studs between the dados and over the blue grey ground.

Smile. Done.


Except. The edge of the table doesn’t look good.

Rough, thin, splintered and even the paint can’t hide it. What to do.

What to do.

Still Life 1914

Looking round the studio I notice an old tablecloth Eva had picked up late one night when we were on our way home. We’ve been using it to deter the draft from whistling through the window frames. It’s filthy, ripped and torn. The tassels from around the edge are partly detached, trailing on the floor. Now, there’s an idea.

I rip the yellow gold tassels from the greasy cloth and wrap them around the table top to see. That could work. I cut the tassels to length and roughly tack them on. I step back. That’s it. Perfect. Finished.

I’m laughing, laughing out loud. Neither one thing or another. Puns upon puns, images of things juxtaposed with actual things to make a new hybrid thing. With two nails I hang it on the wall.

Just wait till Juan sees this one.

Still Life 1914, Pablo Picasso, Tate Collection, bought from Sir Roland Penrose 1969.




This text has some of it's roots in Jackie Heuman's, A Technical Study of Picasso’s Construction Still Life 1914, in Tate Papers, no.11, Spring 2009, and the fact that in the Tate exhibition catalogue The Essential Cubism 1907-1920 of 1983, Still Life is called Glass, Knife and Sandwich on a Table. I love this alternative title's matter-of-factness, it mirrors the everyday nature of the things depicted as well as the prosaic found materials it's made from.

Related projects include a cardboard version of Still Life 1914, some thoughts on collection and power in  Detail from the Collection, and this intervention in Loot

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