Robert Cumming is one of contemporary art's most enduring conceptualists. That may be because his art doesn't run on ideas alone; they are fed by virtuosity and craftsmanship. The latest evidence has arrived in a show of large drawings that demand scrutiny.
At first glance, most works are handsome but mystifying overlays of geometric structures on atmospheric, acrylic washes. Subjected to longer observation, the drawings reveal layers of images: An open ring enclosure becomes a geometric face, backed by a hemispheric bowl bearing Indian stair-step patterns; a spire-topped building arises inside an arched volume that appears to be stretched by rings and wrapped in brown rope; a massive fountain spills water, obscuring feathery architecture. Looking at these artworks makes one feel like an archeologist sifting through strata of civilization and imagining how they all fit together.
Some images are forthcoming, but meanings remain equivocal, as when a pink bar of soap labeled "Nile" floats on an undulating sea of black-and-white mosaic or a mouse dangles from a circular snare, its shadow falling on an upright envelope. Meanwhile, an immaculately crafted wood sculpture of a giant paint brush supported by two mask faces recalls the Cumming we once knew as a witty sculptor.
If Cumming's work has taken on the new look of an unaccustomed material, his sensibility remains constant. He is a droll and imaginative investigator of objects who finds in them multiple possibilities of signification and interpretation. Whether building sculpture, setting up situations to be photographed or drawing and painting--as in his current work--he invests mundane objects with unexpected implications. (Cirrus, 542 S. Alameda St., to May 11.)