New York

Saint Clair Cemin

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

In his theory of creativity as bisociation, Arthur Koestler wrote: “When two independent matrices of perception or reasoning interact with each other the result . . . is either a collision ending in laughter, or their fusion in a new intellectual synthesis, or their confrontation in an aesthetic experience.” He adds that such “comic, tragic, or intellectually challenging effects” can occur simultaneously—and this is precisely what happens in Saint Clair Cemin’s droll sculptures.

The collision of a multicolored female figure and a white polyhedron in A Shard of Glass (all works 2004)—the figure horrified by what it sees, the object pristine and unmoved—is at once a laughable conflation, an aesthetic confrontation of opposites, and their synthesis in an intellectually puzzling relationship. It is the relationship between expressively alive spectator and dead or indifferent work of art; more broadly, between an all-too-human representation and an eccentric geometrical abstraction; and even more broadly, between an object that presents itself as “art” and a human being who wonders why it claims such exalted status. Cemin’s work is funny, thought provoking, and a condensed summary of the unresolved conflict between figuration and abstraction that haunts modernism and its descendents. His sculpture satirizes itself in the act of satirizing the unresolvable standoff between art and life.

he pairing of figure and pedestal in Monument to Credit Card Debt and of head and rectangle in Birdy involves a similar aesthetic confrontation—the bases of the sculptures reference Minimalism; the figure is quasi-Expressionist, and the head quasi-classical—but the result is more absurd than tragic or comic. It suggests the impossibility of the integration of opposites in a new artistic synthesis (from one perspective the problem of postmodernism, which seeks to reconcile that which modernism implied was irreconcilable). Cemin continually restates the problem, but finds no solution to it.

Again and again Cemin takes on, with a kind of tongue-in-cheek insouciance, the idols and ideas of modernism: Richard Serra in The Night, Earth art in Adam. He knows his art history and puts it all up for grabs, sometimes in delirious combinations. In Computer, for example, he fuses truncated cross and simplified figure in quasi–Art Nouveau style. There’s a kind of playful morbidity to Cemin’s art that’s especially evident in We, a conglomeration of clay figures of all sizes and shapes, some colorful, most not. It’s a minihistory of sculpture and a mocking comment on humanity and its gods (including art gods, as the variety of styles implies). They’re all toys in an ongoing game, one that gets increasingly crowded with players. Cemin hints at the folly of joining in, particularly as the game loses feeling by becoming too clever for its own good. But he also reserves some praise for this folly because art, after all, remains creative, however aborted into juxtapositions its bisociations become.

Donald Kuspit