Saint Clair Cemin, James Hyde, Jac Leirner at Sikkema Jenkins & Co
Until January 27
530 W 22nd Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 929 226
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 11, 2007under the title ”A Nostalgia for Radical Inquiry”
Two of the three artists in this exhibition share the distinction that, as often as not, their solo efforts are mistaken for group shows, anyway. James Hyde works simultaneously in a variety of directions; whether taking the form of wall relief, free-standing sculptural object, furniture, or treated photographs, however, he insists on describing himself as a painter. And though disparate in medium and look, his bodies of work do test the boundaries of painting—color adhering to structure is always a feature. His art is often compared to the French 1960s Support-Surface group of minimal abstractionists for its formalist antics, its play with language.
By contrast, the neo-romantic Saint Clair Cemin is unlikely to be accused of formalism: His output often strays along such contradictory paths as elegaic classicism, a primitivism invested with sympathetic magic, and a hi-tech aesthetic. The critic Donald Kuspit has named him an artist of bisociation.
On this occasion, however, the works by which these artists are represented remains relatively focused. The appropriation art of the third member of the troika, Mr. Cemin’s fellow Brazillian Jac Leirner, revels in a tongue-in-cheek semiotics that bridges Mr. Cemin’s hermeticism and Mr. Hyde’s language games. Ironically, therefore, the three-person show can be mistaken for one man’s retrospective.
Thus, three conceptually consonant categories of object come to cohabit the main, central gallery at Sikkema, Jenkins: vitrine-contained painting construtions by Mr. Hyde, vaguely science fair-like sculptural balls by Mr. Cemin, and a wall-hanging of museum store bags by Ms. Leirner.
“Weights and Heats” (2006) by Mr. Hyde has a glass box tilted at a diagonal to the wall at 8 foot by just over five foot, and 17-1/2 inches deep; this pristine, meticulously fabricated vitrine accommodates an artfully messy arrangement of papers, stretches of fabric, and paint. The paint is applied in varying thicknesses to the glass support and also adheres to, or reaches across, the appropriated materials. The vitrine does theatrically emphasized double-duty as surface and support, container and contained.
The sense of wayward energy compacted can put the viewer in mind of John Chamberlain’s crushed car-parts, while the controlled anarchy recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s early Combines. But the color and movement both have a chirpiness that keeps them free of existentialist connotations. But somehow, miraculously, such critical self-consciousness doesn’t cramp their sly exuberance.
In a way, his vitrined painting format (also adopted in two other 2006 works here, “Catalytic” and “Rotational”) relates to the almost ubiquitous use of vitrines in conceptual and neo-conceptual work, whether of Joseph Beuys, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. By tipping his vitrines and having the paint adhere to the glass as support, Mr. Hyde both plays on this cool, distancing convention of the vitrine, and subverts it, insisting that the glass box, like exposed canvas, has a life of its own.
Mr. Cemin has five identically shaped sculptures in different colors—four in polyester resin, colored blue, green, white, and yellow, the fifth in stainless steel—each titled “Supercuia” (2006). A monumental version of the same sculptural form is installed permanently in a park in Brasillia. In the gallery versions, these enigmatic balls are each around 46 inches diameter. With breast-like forms protruding at equal points, they come across as oversized models of some molecular structure—thus their collided mix of the hi-tech, in their finish and symmetry, and the biological, in their organic point of inspiration (the breast-form, it transpires, though perfectly neat and regular like a laboratory vessel, is actually based on a gourd).
Just as Mr. Cemin’s somewhat romantic synthesis of the organic and the mechanical begins to relate to Mr. Hyde’s collision of the wayward and the contained, along comes Ms. Leirner, to remind the company that it is just art that’s being talked about. Her “144 Museum Bags” (2006) arranges its titular content in a neat grid, suspending the flat, empty, but slightly crumpled, and thus obviously used bags along plastic coated steel cable. She is evidently well-traveled—a sophisticated bag lady—with souvenirs of galleries across the UK (lots of Tate purple, for instance), the US, and as far afield as Denmark and Israel. These are freely arranged with chroma not geography as the guiding principle, creating wave patterns of color from these unlikely digits. Her aesthetic offers, like her male counterparts, both a collision of cultures: The bags have a jocular, personal element, but the order to which they are subjected recalls the Constructivism prevalent in Brazil in the 1950s, with its love of grids and systems. Like Mr. Hyde, with his throwback to French structuralist abstraction of the 1960s, and Mr. Cemin, whose syntheses and bipolarities are redolent of 1940s artists who fused Surrealism and abstraction, Ms. Leirner presents a nostalgia for the radical inquiry of yesteryear.