PRINT October 1994


SAINT CLAIR CEMIN strides about the vast spaces of his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, pointing out mysterious dust-shrouded objects of his own devising while firing off aphorisms and observations like a Roman candle: “Minimalism said, ‘look how pure we are’; today’s art says ‘We’re pure because we know we’re dirty.’“ Or, declaring that the language of the critic is not and should never be the language of the artist, he will ask, “Would a hippopotamus consult the National Geographic magazine to find out when it should mate?” In between inveighing against “the infantile Cartesianism of separating mind and body,“ Cemin will suddenly look up with a delighted smile and exclaim: “What if the universe turned out to have an Art Nouveau shape?”

He takes me over to look at a maquette of a piece he will show in this year’s XXII São Paulo Bienal. It is a pyramid composed of many smaller pyramids colored pink, blue, and white. The real thing will be 18 feet high and will be called New Religions of Brasilia, in reference to a village near that city that has become a center for esoteric cults. Cemin tells me that the priests and priestesses of one of the cults dress as butterflies. I realize I have entered the realm of magic realism—in Brooklyn. Magic realism and the baroque, for it seems entirely appropriate, even inevitable, that the studio should be littered with the pieces of a stage set for a production of Calderón’s visionary drama Life is a Dream, to play over the summer at the Rushmore Festival.

A proscenium arch lies on the floor. On a purple ground Cemin has assembled clusters of allegorical images—coils of rope, chains, twisted ribbons, heaps of crowns, crossed wings, leering satyrs’ faces. Looking at it all, I remark that in Brazil, the baroque comes with the territory. Cemin readily agrees, and produces a book about the self-taught 18th-century Brazilian sculptor known as Aleijadinho, or the Little Cripple. We look at a photograph of a Last Supper. The marvelously expressive painted figures of Christ and the Apostles sit around a big plain table such as you might find in the kitchen of a farmhouse. Cemin asks, “Wouldn’t this cause a sensation in New York?" I agree that it would, and we fall to talking about his early years in the rural town of Cruz Alta in Brazil’s deep south.

Cemin traces his love of bibelots and cheap curios to “the decorative statuettes I used to break at my grandmother’s,“ and remembers one in particular, “a ballerina whose bust formed a glass lid over a hollow lower torso of alabaster.” Another formative influence was his adolescent friendship with the gentleman farmer and scholar Gilberto Prates, a man who could recite Sappho in the original. He and the young Cemin would sit for hours discussing Plato and drinking huge amounts of scotch. Once, when Cemin was distressed by a newspaper report of a massacre, Prates rebuked him with the words, “You are of an age to know that in life not even the atoms are glued together because of justice.” And of course Cemin is always gluing things together—plaster and bronze, marble and aluminum, wood and alabaster, in a manner that seems both a celebration of randomness and an attempt to overcome it.

Prates was a Hellenistic philosopher lost in gaucho country. A Cemin bronze of 1988 is called Zeno, presumably in homage to Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. It resembles a cross between a bird and a scientific instrument. A work of 1984 is an alabaster copy of a Greek or Roman oil lamp. All this set me to thinking that what I had identified as baroque in Cemin’s work might have a much more ancient origin: I began to think of him as the last Hellenistic sculptor. It was the Hellenistic sculptors who first subverted the classical style by introducing a more violent or fanciful subjectivity, which was sometimes expressed in portrayals of the grotesque and the ugly. And Cemin’s earliest exhibited work was the notorious Granny Ashtray, 1983-85, a small (curio-sized) figure of a naked old woman, kneeling with her legs wide apart; she has a skull for a head and an ashtray between her legs, almost as if she had given birth to it. The style might be described as “punk academicism”; Cemin himself simply describes it as “horrible looking.” It is perhaps another way for him to break his grandmother’s statuettes, for this is the kind of “novelty item” from which admirers of such things would recoil in horror. When a friend called the piece “a true spit in the eye of the public,” Cemin was delighted.

It is my turn to tell Cemin a story. A month or so before our meeting I was arranging a rendezvous with a visiting artist from Texas at Cemin’s New York gallery. “Oh,” she said somewhat dismissively, “they have a group show on there.” When I pointed out that it was a one-man show she was incredulous: “What!!? He must be completely insane. Who is he?” Cemin laughs, but my friend’s bewilderment is entirely understandable. Like all his solo shows, this one appeared to be the work of at least four strongly antagonistic artists, even though all but one of them were from 1994.

At one end of the gallery stood This, a large, geometric, walk-in fun house built of plywood and gaudily painted on the interior. It looked like the kind of environment children would enjoy, and it is easy to imagine Cemin designing a park or a playground. At the other end of the gallery was Monument to the lberic Orator, an example of Cemin at his most baroque and Hellenistic. This consisted of a large aluminum bell painted white and supported on winged feet. A tall, unevenly shaped bronze column rising from the bell ended in a statuette of the eponymous orator, stretching out an arm and wrapped in swirling drapery. Not far from Monument was its antithesis, Marte, a tense and spikily aggressive steel structure, and close to that lay Song, an “impossible” musical instrument with graceful lines lovingly carved out of walnut.

But the correct question to ask is not Why? but Why not? As in: why not a solid-bronze tea kettle, or a homage to Rodin, or a bright green guitar with only one string, or chairs you can’t sit in? It is clear that Cemin’s style-shifting is anything but a sign of desperation. He loves craft and has mastered it, and, unlike some hapless art-world neophytes, he is definitely not flailing about in the hope of hitting on a winning line of art products. Like the aphoristic statements that come so naturally to him, the objects he creates may contradict each other, but in and of themselves they seem absolutely right. He thinks in puns and paradoxes, and is a dandy in the tradition of Baudelaire, drawn to elegance but also capable of finding a kind of beauty in ugliness.

Cemin believes that contemporary artists should liberate themselves by getting involved with “what is not art.” In a Bomb interview of 1994, he speaks wistfully of “entire populations of objects which are proletarian: stuff that’s cast out, that is supposed to be so uncool and so out of fashion, so absurd, or completely objectionable. I think if they are so objectionable, then there must be something very interesting about them.” This fascination with the “objectionable” has led some commentators to compare Cemin to Jeff Koons, but the two could hardly be more different. Koons’ manipulation of kitsch imagery can seem mean-spirited. For Cemin the concept of kitsch is virtually meaningless and certainly unhelpful. He is driven by the desire to include, to reclaim and recover everything from classicism to novelty ashtrays: “All the good stuff art threw out the window, I am downstairs with a bag.”

He is also a man with a mission: he believes that art is obligated to be promiscuous. Current political and esthetic orthodoxies do not impress him; he believes they hold the artist back. Tradition, by contrast, is not a problem. Why reject Donatello or Michelangelo or Rodin? Even Gaudí and Brancusi are not a problem. (Indeed, Cemin worships both artists.) The problem is “the dog that is biting my leg,” the dog that barks, You can do this, you can’t do that.

Cemin’s generosity of spirit is best exemplified by the fountain he designed for the town of Reston, Virginia, in 1990. It is a real fountain, 26 feet high and built of white Carrara marble, not some concrete monolith with a leak. It takes up the historicist themes of the surrounding post-Modern architecture, but it does not do so slavishly, and it is no more of a pastiche than Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballets are. A great bowl rises from a pool and a column rises from the bowl, swelling and contracting, twisting and turning in homage to Gaudi. Attached to the various protuberances of this column are bronze forms that are half sea horses, half horns of plenty, from which water gushes in extravagant quantities. The whole ensemble is topped with the statue of a lithe and youthful Mercury, which would be entirely classical in style if this Mercury didn’t seem to be having some difficulty maintaining his balance.

Cemin has never had any doubt that the purpose of art is to give pleasure, and Mercury Fountain has proved very popular with the citizens of Reston. It is a work of great charm and bravura that seems to invite people to loiter and socialize. Furthermore, the statue of Mercury is not an arbitrary classical reference but a graceful compliment, since Mercury is the messenger of the gods and many of Reston’s inhabitants work for the communications industry. There are those who would like Cemin to grow a little more sober, to use his prodigious gifts for more adult purposes, but the imagination has nothing to do with adult purposes. It is my hope that Cemin will continue to do exactly as he pleases, that he will remain true to the spirit of the 14-year-old who staggered home drunk in Cruz Alta, his head brimming with ancient Greek.

John Ash