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Saint Clair Cemin - Brent Sikkema
Art in America - Nancy Princenthal

Art in America

Achieving the perfect anomaly - the object that doesn't belong in any imaginable ordered assortment- is a major goal in late modern art. St. Clair Cemin comes close to it as anyone, creating sculptural misfits that can be a wicked delight to behold. Often, as in these new sculptures (all 2004), Cemin further complicates things by the imposition of more or less inexplicable titles.

For instance, Computer is the name of a polychrome, T-shaped wooden relief propped casually against the wall, its crosspiece occupied by a huge staring eye. The upright of the T, with its open, roughly fashioned interlace motif, could be a greatly enlarged detail of an illuminated manuscript. Omniscient surveillance and information overload are two associations the title suggests, though implacable resistance to signification is an equally reasonable reading of the work.

On the other hand, The Night comfortably fits the melancholy sculpture it names, a wooden head with a inchoate form (a baby?) at its neck and a slab of wood painted midnight blue pressed against its sorrowful face. This nocturnal calm is shattered with A Shard of Glass, a comic little tableau that combines an even-sided polygon of whitewashed wood and, facing it on the floor, a crudely carved, pint-size wooden figure a posture of ritual panic, arms raised, knees defensively bent, body scrawled in flaming reds and blues.

Cross-wiring response systems organized for incompatible experiences- worship, consumption, fear, affection- is a primary Cemin gesture. Monument to Credit Card Debt features a chunky little slope-shouldered guy, crudely chipped out of a block of wood and painted a tarry black. Perched atop a tall steel pedestal, he is a relic without an origin: he could be an effigy out of childhood or tribal culture or the exigent religion of ready cash. More refined but no easier to identify is Birdy, a waxy-surfaced classical bust of polychromed wood, hair trimmed like that of some august Roman senator, and above his prominent nose, wan blue eyes and brow raised in helpless perplexity.

Occasionally in the past, Cemin's work has lost its edge to opulent materials (marble, titanium-clad steel). Here, he errs in the other direction, as with a host of inconsequential little figures, mostly of clay and plaster (We), congregated on the floor of the gallery's smaller room. In the same room, Adam, a handful of small 24k-gold objects displayed in an elegant Chinese vitrine, posed a tepid challenge. But courting failure is central to Cemin's work. "Meaning only has meaning when it's not understood," he has said, and also, "I can't read criticism because I find it's too primitive." Fair enough, though in using words - titles - to disable interpretation by sending it into overdrive, he risks having viewers skim right over the work. It's a dicey maneuver. But then his sculpture's manifold pleasures, as deep as they are irregular, are probably best absorbed in a state of mild confusion.

 
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