New York

Saint Clair Cemin

Massimo Audiello / Sperone Westwater

Saint Clair Cemin’s sculptures are like sphinxes or Delphic oracles; they speak only in riddles. Indeed, they are deliberately obscure, as though baiting us to guess their meaning. Part of a post-Modernist trend that might be called the “new obscurantism,” these works combine familiar materials and styles to unnamable, but peculiarly predictable expressive effect. Many of the pieces (all works 1990) are tongue-in-cheek reprises of totems with titles such as Psychology Today, Atlas, and Untitled (With Braces); all are paradoxical manipulations of familiar Modernist codes. Some seem ripe with meaning because they are constructed contradictions (e.g., Chair, with its raised white marble seat positioned between raw wood pillars is a composite or double reprise.) I think the intention is to be irksome without quite becoming absurd—to irritate and amuse while leaving the “larger” point of the work in the dark. It may have no point beyond its general air of uncanniness and sardonic relationship to past styles.

Cemin seems determined to de-reify these styles. Thus, Teddy Bear may allude to Robert Smithson’s mirror constructions, but the quasi-organic form projecting from the corner where the mirrors meet seems a genially grotesque version of Smithson’s characteristic materials. Cemin seems to engineer the organic, suggesting its reification, while at the same time vitalizing and de-reifying quasi-Minimalist geometry; the works depend heavily on this conceptual reversal.

These sculptures also have wonderful tactile values. Car II and Alma seem, in their smooth, erotic curvilinear character, like bodies made for the blind. They promise more to the touch than to sight, although their look is arousing enough in its own way. Jewel also promises forbidden tactile sensations. The lapis lazuli that forms the creature’s head contrasts deliciously on both a visceral and a visual level with the silver of its body. Via this sensuality the sculptures exceed their obscure narrative implications.

Cemin’s works are tributes to the sensation of impenetrable immediacy that the best Modern art aimed to realize. Thus, they celebrate the modern sense of enigma even as they seem to stylize it. From pure sensation comes impure suggestion—a sense of import that can never be completely spelled out but is strongly felt. In Modern art suggestiveness derived from a content and was still attached to it. It was, in fact, the sensation of a content that was suggestive, however much the sensation could be detached from the content. Cemin’s post-Modernist sculptures imply that suggestive sensation has become an end in itself, and a meaningful content may or may not come attached to it, at the spectator’s interpretive discretion and pleasure.

Donald Kuspit