PRINT May 1988

Ceminal Art

WHAT TO DO WITH ONE'S imagination in this day and age? No matter how much we streamline our life, no matter how energetically we try to convince ourselves that consumerism and media conditioning have taken it away from us, imagination somehow persists, sometimes popping up in the most banal manner, other times in the most extraordinary ways, but always unaccountably there.

Some artists, instead of playing games to camouflage it, are directly confronting the question of how to track the imagination. Rather than surrendering to any one current of mechanistic thinking,1 they have understood that it is impossible to find truly imaginative paths by establishing preconceived boundaries on the territories in which such paths might be found. These artists are willing to explore the mind itself as the realm where existence unfolds.2 Their journeys are never concluded; their identities evolve with the work. Their art is characterized by perpetual change, and is rarely predetermined by theme, technique, or imagery.3 Often, then, the characteristics that link diverse pieces are only recognized by their makers after the fact. And though viewers can discern kinships among quite different works, the artists themselves have rarely made or presented these pieces in series that “package” those kinships. Such artists, inspired by a longterm vision, don’t waste time in carefully charting their careers for quick consumption. Instead, they are dedicated to a process of thinking and making that generates a dialogue with the public, a dialogue in which the viewer’s creative effort equals that of the artist.4

Saint Clair Cemin is 36 years old. He was born in Brazil, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. Feeling that Brazil offered few opportunities for growth (these were the times of military dictatorship), Cemin went to Paris in 1972, where he frequented the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He was interested in etching, and there he learned to draw. But political expediency, as much as artistic ambition, played a role here. For in fact, Cemin’s enrollment in school—any school—was a prerequisite for his legal residency in France. On his arrival in New York in 1978, Cemin did not even call himself an artist. Though he drew more than 2,000 drawings, these were exercises he subjected himself to, with the purpose of unlearning the académie’s teachings, of starting all over from scratch. Rather than exercises in skill, then, these were exercises in thought. He chose to concentrate on works of limited scope in order to intuit when and how the actual moment of creativity occurred. He examined in actual practice matters such as “style, the hand, the synchronicity of thought and action, the experience of rhythm and time,”5 because those are things one cannot discover through theory. Considering the drawings “notations too private to keep,” he threw them all away, and, in 1983, turned to sculpture. And even now, as though to insure against framing himself, Cemin stresses that he did not, does not, “intend” to be an artist. Cemin looks with suspicion upon intentions: he recognizes that intentions, in the current climate, too often serve as prescriptive guidelines, impeding the disengagement of our culture from pedanticism.

In the press release for a 1986 exhibition, Cemin listed a number of his speculative references and strategies. The concept of translation occurs several times among them.

Some aspects of [my] research:

—Boundaries of semantic regions and the implication of the absence of proper passports.

—The question of the Identity of the Mental object translating itself again and again through the processing mind.

—Translation as means of locomotion within the subconscious: (wheeled vehicles ride on “permanent revolution” devices, the wheels. Likewise, Mental objects ride on their own “Permanent Translation”).

—The replacement of Surrealism’s “Automatic Writing” by a sort of Heuristic slow boiling process.

—Management and economy of the viewers’ attention by means of stereotypical lubricators. . . . 6

The Latin translatio is a noun derived from transferre, “to carry from here to there.” And the work of an artist who refuses to submit to artificially singular interpretations of existence, who carries from here to there, becomes a kind of alchemy for a relativistic, electronic, media age. The seeker of the philosophers’ stone engages in the search, knowing full well that it might never be found. No matter how impossible the goal, however, the pursuit catalyzes the exploration and the invention of the world for both the seeker and for the community. As Lewis Thomas observed in one of his short biological tales:

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. . . . To err is human, we say, but we don’t like the idea much, and it is harder still to accept the fact that erring is biological as well. We prefer sticking to the point, and insuring ourselves against change. . . .

Biology needs a better word than “error” for the driving force in evolution. Or maybe “error” will do after all, when you remember that it came from an old root meaning to wander about, looking for something.7

In this light, perhaps we could redefine “intentions.” No longer pedestrian blueprints for linear action, they could be conceived of as instruments for a risk-taking research leading to unexpected results.

An artist of translation, Cemin chooses to ignore many of the distinctions that feed the body of our comatose culture like a hospital’s life-support machines. His work demonstrates that we needn’t even bother unplugging the machine once we acknowledge that we belong to another set of concerns altogether.

Cemin, for instance, professes allegiance to neither realism nor abstraction. Because his attention is focused on the multilayered processes of the mind, he can find articulation for these processes in either more or less identifiable forms.

Nor does Cemin restrict himself to either objects crafted by the modeling hand or objects crafted by machine. His sculptures are sometimes rough, sometimes smooth—but they indulge in neither brutalism nor refinement.8 Belittlers of artists like Cemin might say: “Look how regressive! They proceed as if a century of debate had not taken place!” But in fact, traditional conventions come to Cemin as codes worth pursuing, and nothing more. This I would call the reconventionalization of art—a reconventionalization at arm’s length—not a parody, not a readymade, but a process that makes available to all of us a whole array of data no longer worth discriminating against.

And by the same token, Cemin does not feel compelled to proclaim the supposedly critical practices of simulation or appropriation in his art. As buzzwords, these terms have entered even the jargon of collectors dizzied by their rush to be always up-to-date. And for the artists and writers promoting them, these sometimes useful concepts seem to have become slogans, gaining their power by being repeated instead of explored. Cemin’s approach is inevitably critical, even subversive, but on deeper terms. Though some sort of simulation is inherent in any artistic pursuit that approaches the “seriousness and fragility of existence”9 to touch upon its mystery, Cemin’s simulation never stands as a surrogate for existence. In his work, it’s the give-and-take between the two that fascinates us, and moves us to appreciate and to credit all facets of our experience in the shaping of an organic, whole life. “For two hours of Baudrillard,” as Cemin says, “you need five more hours of Nietzsche to recuperate.”10 And how much richer is this trust in memory, the filter through which images, materials, and ideas from our own and other times, other places, and other people are transformed, than that which, despite the noble intentions of its practitioners, has become a marketable last-breath of the collage academy: the formulaic cut-and-paste now known as appropriation.

In his most recent show in New York, Cemin’s pieces were scattered everywhere, some on the wall, most on the floor. Each piece was not only a discrete entity, but also one (or many) facet(s) of a greater unfathomable entity that the visitor could scan as a whole, and then travel through: a network of signs and potential symbols; of merged materials (alabaster, lead, bronze, wood) and of images. From a bronze bitch that could have been modeled by Rodin in a drunken moment, a sweet-looking bird (which also resembled a space module) lay suckling; out of the body of a strange quadruped grew a bell-like shape with a snakish handle. In our journey through the room, these works and others were continually alluding, and yet never relating literally, to one another.

Through one single piece, Utopia, 1987, a statuette in terra-cotta, Cemin echoed the experience of the entire show. For it was only after the viewer had circled the piece many times that what at first seemed elegantly arbitrary formations of shapes, light, and shadow began to reveal themselves as something else as well: the contours of a woman with raised arms, perhaps rising out of some kind of tree.

Cemin’s work can remind us of fabulous enterprises outside the realm of the visual arts: the imaginary machines of Raymond Roussel’s novels Impressions d’Afrique, 1910, and Locus Solus, 1914; the secret journeys and magical, mystical, playful explorations of the writers and founders of the French journal Grand Jeu, 1928–29; the ambiguous yet madly precise descriptions of Jorge Luis Borges; the gentle social critique of the Brazilian 19th-century master Machado de Assis in his novel Memorias Posthumas de Braz Cubas (The posthumous memoirs of Braz Cubas, 1881), to name just a few. For even when Cemin’s object refers to as trivial a thing as a teapot, it becomes exotic, extraordinary, maybe even mythical. The pot’s spout might be an elephant’s nose, the lid the roof of an Arabian Nights palace, and the teapot itself, Aladdin’s lamp.

Cemin calls the referential clues in his sculptures “stereotypical lubricators”—these are the ingredients he uses to “gain access to the viewer’s consciousness.” They are also, for Cemin, the “dramatization of thoughts one might have but are conventionally prohibited.”11 With his Thin Chair, 1987, Cemin tempts us with a form resembling a rocking chair, but takes away the utilitarian potential by making the seat so thin that no one could sit on it. This strategy might remind us of Claes Oldenburg: Oldenburg negates the use factor by changing certain conditions associated with that use while leaving others intact. Cemin foils our desires to use the object by juggling his “stereotypical lubricators” in disquieting—sometimes even disturbing — ways. That strange Wheelbarrow, 1987, for example, due to the placement of its wheels, would certainly spill its contents if rolled. That magic lamp/teapot, Tea Kettle, 1986, cannot contain a genie or tea, because it is full of bronze.

Recently, Cemin has incorporated everyday objects into several sculptures. He rested a Japanese tatami mat on top of four bronze legs in We Franciscans, 1986, and indicated a real straw hat hanging on a branchlike excrescence in one of the detailed drawings by which he “prospects” for his sculptures. But I find these a return to old collagist tenets many of us have indulged in too much, and less interesting. By interrupting the magic of seduction with prosaic facts—we could actually rest on that mat, pluck that hat from the branch and try it on for size—these works diminish the viewer’s imaginative collaboration. In Cemin’s best works, use remains virtual, a trigger for fantastic exchange.

Like many artists engaged in the exploration of metamorphic distortions, Cemin is hard put to distinguish his art from the Surrealist tradition, with which he feels he has little in common. But his imagery does not in fact originate specifically in dreams, nor can it be reduced to such Modernist concerns as differentiating nature from culture. From within ranges of meaning and association so wide that all such once-apparently-irreconcilable polarities are dissolved, each Cemin image presents itself as an event, the culmination of an open process of dialing. With just the right touch of humor and curiosity, Cemin then waits to see this or that position come around, and what he can do with it to keep our wheel of possibilities spinning.

Lucio Pozzi is a painter who lives in New York.



1. Mechanistic thinking is one of the major diseases of our time. This pervasive strain of mental laziness dilutes the most creative ideas by removing from them their contradictions, and reducing them, homogenizing them, to rigid rules for cultural conduct—often under the pretext of making these ideas more accessible to the general public.

I have come to think that we are currently witnessing in art two related mechanistic conformities: Consumer Orthodoxy and Yuppie Marxism.

Consumer Orthodoxy: that phenomenon characterized by artists following methodologies in such a way that they pre-censor the contradictory impulses of their research to comply with the immediate needs of the art-distribution network.

Yuppie Marxism: that misdirected critique of capitalist esthetics conducted by camouflaging consumerist thought in Marxist jargon, resulting in the delivery of yet another set of products to the short-cycle art distribution network.

2. A passage by Harold Bloom comes to mind. "Jacques Derrida asks a central question in his essay on Freud and the Scene of Writing: ‘What is a text, and what must the psyche be if it can be represented by a text?’ My narrower concern with poetry prompts the contrary question: ‘What is a psyche, and what must a text be if it can be represented by a psyche?’ Both Derrida’s question and my own require exploration of three terms: ‘psyche,’ ‘text,’ ‘represented.’ ‘Psyche’ is ultimately from the Indo-European root bhes, meaning ‘to breathe,’ and possibly was imitative in its origins. ‘Text’ goes back to the root teks, meaning ‘to weave,’ and also ‘to fabricate.’ ‘Represent’ has as its root es: ‘to be.’ My question thus can be rephrased: ‘What is a breath, and what must a weaving or a fabrication be so as to come into being again as a breath?’” (Bloom, Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976, p. 1.)

3. Picasso and Joseph Beuys are names one immediately thinks of. And remember André Masson: “My work is an errant one. I can’t stay very long in one place; I have preferred the mental labyrinth full of snares to roads that were safe and straight.” (William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner, André Masson, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976, p. 11.) Also, Marcel Duchamp on Picabia in 1949: “In his fifty years of painting Picabia has consistently avoid [sic] to stick to any formula, to wear a badge. . . . ” (Robert L. Herbert, Eleanor S. Apter, and Elise K. Kenney, The Societé Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London: Vale University Press, 1984, p. 525.)

And the last years of Jackson Pollock’s life are exemplary in this context. He must have fell that his dripping techniques had become a cliche by 1953, when he began to explore very different ways of painting in works such as The Deep and Easter and the Totem.

And in my own time, of course, I have a cherished list of fellow travelers: Malcolm Morley, Richard Artschwager, Louise Bourgeois, John Cage, Ree Morton, Salvatore Scarpitta, Joel Fisher, Judith Shea, Ross Bleckner, and the subject of this essay, just to name a few.

4. The artist, then, does not hand down an ideologic/esthetic agenda to his or her viewer, but allows ideology and formal appearance to emerge a posteriori, as both artist and spectator become imagining partners in the making of experience.

To put it in a simplistic aphorism: if David Salle, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Haim Steinbach preshop for their clients, Saint Clair Cemin gives back to the shopper the privilege of decision.

5. Saint Clair Cemin, in a conversation with the author, New York City, December 1987. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations of the artist are from this conversation.

6. Cemin, in the press release for his exhibition at the Daniel Newburg Gallery, New York, in 1986.

7. Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, New York: Bantam Books, 1980, pp. 23–24.

8. For several of his cast sculptures, Cemin has worked with Robert Sposit, an artisan who makes his living by casting decorative moldings for old buildings. Reviving a century-old tradition, Cemin casts his bronzes in small editions of three to seven. But by using Mr. Sposit’s techniques, the artist can achieve substantial differences in detail between casts of the same edition; every piece acquires a personality of its own, so to speak, one that is further emphasized by its hand-filing and finishing before it leaves the studio.

9. Ginevra Bompiani, L’Incantato (The enchanted), Milan: Garzanti Editore, 1987, p. 82. Phrase translated from the Italian by Lucio Pozzi.

10. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, 1966, now seems to have become an elegant academy. Witness, for example, one among many points made by Jean Baudrillard in Simulations: “radical disenchantment, the cool and cybernetic phase following the hot stage of fantasy.” (Baudrillard, Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e), Foreign Agents Series, 1983, p. 148.)

How strange to assume that cybernetics are cool and disenchanting—that they do away with fantasy! Since the Luddites, we’ve been experiencing all sorts of exaggerated reactions to the machine—for or against. Both postures, in actuality, acquiesce to a morally rotten, unjust social order. When will we simply accept our machines as extensions of ourselves, and nothing more?

I much prefer Félix Guattari: “non-verbal modes of semiotization are today obviously bound to coexist symbiotically not only with speech and writing but also with computers. Let’s say that all these things work together without priority or encroachment of one field upon another.” (Guattari, “Cracks in the Street,” New Observations 48, New York, May 1987, p. 10.)

11. For instance, one would quickly suppress the notion that Donald Judd’s “stacks” are steps or stairs for one to walk on.