Soul of the Machine

Soul of the Machine

Saint Clair Cemin explores consumerism with a heart both heavy and light

The work of Brazilian native Saint Clair Cemin, including “Computer” (2004), a Polychrome wood sculpture, 60 x 67 x 13 inches, often employs black humor to critique consumerism and popular artistic notions.

One enters an exhibition of sculpture made by Saint Clair Cemin expecting a quirky trip through the history of three-dimensional objects. The artist is well known for his ability to hybridize an impressive range of references and materials, from antiquity to pop culture, from ceramics to bronze. For 20 years, Cemin has helped transform our understanding of “pastiche” from an illustrative postmodern strategy to a personalized and wildly imaginative methodology.

He continues this high-minded, yet deeply humane work in his current exhibition “Gods of the People,” at Brent Sikkema Gallery in Chelsea.

Gone are the ornamental-leaning allusions that leave the old school sculpture-lover leering into a threatening abyss of home décor items. In their place, most notably in “Birdy,” “The Night” and “Monument to Credit Card Debt” are welded steel structures. In each case, the steel structure is the lower half of the whole, the part that supports and hits the ground. This agile turnabout of allusion and material ushers us into that space of wonder Cemin is so good at. What is furniture? What is kitsch?

But this is only to discuss one small part of the work, albeit a commanding retooling of the framework of Cemin’s vocabulary. Each of these three works provides much more by means of carved and Polychrome wood. In “Monument to Credit Card Debt,” a crudely hewn cherry wood figure stands, tarred, high atop its steel plinth. For many of us, the image is too close to home to be funny. And yet, the humor of any attempt to appease this god of consumption is not completely lost.

Cemin conveys a sense of persistent, yet endearing dread in “The Night” through a double action of leaning—a deep blue plank against a head, and its steel support against the wall. The most expressive carving comes to us in the severed head of “Birdy.” Mounted on an oversized steel-walled void, “Birdy”’s pale, quivering expression is hard to read up close. But when taken in with its cool empty body, what might have seemed like an urge to sneeze or cry is understood as a sneer.

There is a clarity and directness in this work that moves and challenges. “We,” a mass of small severely handmade figures, some just barely gestured into being, tests our tolerance of the undone and the unformed. “Computer” is a riot of sensuality, making that laptop appliance into a soulful totem. It is Cemin’s address through a predominance of the hand—in carving, welding, and Polychrome passages—that cuts a clear path to us. He has harnessed the politics of style and craft to build an authentic description of our current human condition, weighted with sadness and scribbled with joy.

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