New York

Saint Clair Cemin

Saint Clair Cemin’s recent show was a marvel of visual wit, acknowledging and playfully disturbing the conventions of sculpture with a mischievous humor that verges on madness. From a distance Three Graces (all works 2002) looks like Expressionist fantasy, but its odd bulges and whimsical conjunctions suggest a certain ironic license with the female figure as well as the ancient theme of the title. Breasts and bellies proliferate, evoking the artist’s wild vision of the female body in all its plenitude. By his own testimony, Cemin’s new works are inspired by his wife’s pregnancy and daughter’s birth; he’s evidently surrounded by femininity, which, if his turbulent sculptures are any indication, threatens to engulf him in its generativity.

Cemin’s quasi-chaotic gestures are Dionysian in import even as they seem to mock by now clichéd automatism. In Voice, a series of suggestive amorphous objects like melting Medardo Rossos are lined up in a long row on a severe minimalist table with thin steel legs and a plateglass surface. The contrast of static gestalt and dynamic formlessness—the former mechanically intelligible, the latter deeply emotional, as Anton Ekenzweig observes in The Hidden Order of Art—is implicitly surreal. Indeed, Cemin could be described as a postmodern Surrealist, in that he seems to poke fun at Surrealism while pushing all its buttons, generating strange new relations but with a light, even lyrical touch that softens the absurdity into comedy.

I Love You is reminiscent of Giacometti’s Surrealist tabletop works, and the subtly lovely white puddle of Milk seems like a streamlined, tenderized Arp. Memory is a wonderful poetic animal—dog? cat?—whose head is an abstract slab. The surreal incongruity is at its most dramatic in Childhood, a quirky metal object, its surface embroidered with a logolike pattern (a coat of arms?), atop a pile of clay fragments. Cemin likes to mix his materials, often juxtaposing the raw and refined, as though proposing some alchemical transformation of the former into the latter while maintaining their contrast. The weirdly expressionistic chair in One and Many, another synthesis of geometric form and gestural texture, is reflected in mirror: the reflection seems somehow less absurd than the actual chair, even almost usable (though neither has a seat).

Like the Surrealists, Cemin sides with the abnormal against the normal—but while they found the former lurking just under the surface of the latter. Cemin doesn’t seem to know what the normal is at all—he simply experiences everything as abnormal. He doesn’t have to identify with his own child to become one: For him art is a form of child’s play, a way of toying with what we think we know, of maintaining a profound sense of the bizarreness of reality. Freud wrote that “the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real,” and fortunately for us Cemin is serious about play, to the extent that he gives us a new sense of the absurdity of the real. Even time is just a silly game for him, as the amorphous Mister Time, an expressionistic Disney toy on a mock classical pedestal, suggests. Kandinsky called the child the “greatest imaginer”; Cemin is the most imaginative art comedian of our rapidly passing time.

Donald Kuspit