New York

Saint Clair Cemin

Robert Miller Gallery

As always, Saint Clair Cemin was witty and worrisome at once in this recent show of four works. In The Two (all works 1997), biblical Death rides a pale horse, but the prospect of revelation seems murky: the horse, lacking a leg, seems to be crumbling under the rider, who resembles nothing so much as a televangelical cowboy wearing an outsize mask. He is a comic Mexican Day-of-the-Dead figure, at once ridiculously sugarcoated and deathly earnest. In The Three, a sculpture in bronze (which does nothing to hide the awkward, presumably delicate modeling, suggesting a never-to-be-finished work), the horse looms somewhat larger and sturdier (he’s a Renaissance delusion of grandeur), while the figures have a tenuous, vulnerable, ephemeral look.

The Four is another visual joke, if this time geometrical and abstract rather than gestural and figurative. In this steel work, pyramids, or cubes with one corner shaved into a triangle, form a perceptually perverse pile. Big and little triangles comically abut one another, forcing abrupt changes in scale. Like all of Cemin’s monuments, the monument itself and the immortality it represents are lampooned. The One, an archaic-looking wood sculpture (the feet are in flat Egyptian profile, the torso Minoan thin), completes Cemin’s tour-de-force. Now the eternal feminine is held up for ridicule.

Cemin treats all his subjects, as well as the art that adulates and embodies them, as absurd farces; the grandiosity of his geometrical sculpture makes teasingly clear that human aspiration—of which art is an indispensable part—is being cut down to comic size, until it seems to lose critical mass and become frivolous. Cemin’s sculpture, in other words, pays homage to the folly of it all. Folly is an old god, celebrated by Erasmus, and I for one like Cemin’s revival of it. Cemin is a sincere cynic, a moralist whose comic constructions betray a kind of stoic dread of the bankruptcy of belief. Stoic comedy is not a bad response to a feeling of meaninglessness; indeed, to laugh at the acedia that art and life seem to have become, at least for Cemin (and many others I would suspect), is self-preserving. Cemin refuses to be taken in by all the things that are supposed to take one in, including his own art. I appreciate the un-self-righteous humor of his three-dimensional nightmares, for humor is the last saving grace—the only way of avoiding self-deception.

Donald Kuspit