Witness, 2008. Lacquered stainless steel, 127 x 29.5 x 57.5 in.

Waltz of the Apparitions: A Conversation with Saint Clair Cemin

Saint Clair Cemin’s sculpture is often imponderable. Because the works are rarely wholly abstract, they seem to want to mean something, to hint at allegory—but do they really have to be something other than what they are as things, as untainted lyric? They cry out like riddles begging to be solved: “What am I?” The works are genuinely quizzical. Are they effigies? Are these independent notions anticipating the magical breath of life? I imagine Cemin like Pan playing the role of puppet master in a waltz of apparitions.
His work is difficult to place categorically. It is assuredly post-Surrealist. It doesn’t really look contemporary, but it is far too well informed to be anything else. All the major modern sculptors are referenced: Rodin, Giacometti, Brancusi, Arp, Moore, Puryear, and de Saint Phalle, just to name a few; the ancients are present, even the Rococo and Baroque; and current design influences, conceptual leanings, and Minimalist tendencies are incorporated. Cemin’s synthesis embraces so many eras, this work has to be new, how could it not be? It is a veritable merry-go-round of diabolical wit, fancy, whimsy, and delight.

Christopher Hart Chambers: When I first saw your work, I thought you were Italian, possibly Eastern European. Some of it reminds me of the Neo-Expressionist Enzo Cucchi, among others. How has your cultural upbringing affected your themes and subjects?

Saint Clair Cemin: Well, I was born in Brazil, and I was influenced by what I saw there, mostly South American Rococo and the sculpture of Aleijadinho, 18th-century South American Baroque. I was also influenced by the Brazilian Modernists. Modernism was a very important influence in Brazil. During the war, a lot of people came from Germany. Max Bill was in Brazil and was a big influence. Brasilia was being built when I was a kid; I was nine years old when it was inaugurated. It was the kind of energy that still remains today: very naturally, one of my sides tends toward Modernism and the other tends toward Baroque.