“Myth and Math,” the pleasantly alliterative title of the Saint Clair Cemin show that opened Thursday at Paul Kasmin, lays plain the duality of symbolism versus the mechanics of sheer construction in the five large-scale abstract sculptures on view — four in metal and one in marble, with several given names that hearken directly to Greek mythology. Here, “Athina,” 2014, the goddess of wisdom, is paid tribute in swooping, vertical steel, while “Laocoön,” 2014, a priest of Poseidon, has been interpreted in interlocking silver curves.
“All this is based on a geometric structure, as you can see,” Cemin explained earlier this week, on a walkthrough of the exhibition. “The order’s still there, but I scrambled it.” Even the more symmetric silver pyramid of “A de Amor,” 2014, acts as one giant, tangled Möbius strip — though in terms of manufacturing, his steel sculptures are cast in pieces, assembled, and then buffed until seamless. For marble, the process breaks down somewhat differently. “I always carve marble like an onion, removing layers,” Cemin said. “And while I am removing the layers, there is a form that is still free inside the piece, and the more I remove, the more constrained it gets, until it’s stuck — it can’t move anywhere else.”
Though figures from Greek mythology are name checked frequently throughout his oeuvre, Cemin’s influences, and his intentions, are much more expansive. While he works often in Chalcis, Greece, he spends an equal amount of time in his studio in Beijing — plus, he was born in Brazil, schooled in Paris, and has lived and worked in New York, Egypt, and Bali. He also maintains a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “I think the substratum of all mythology, all around the world, is dealing with the fact of being human and being at the mercy of life,” he said. “Myth is actually more true than anything else, because it corresponds at once to a particular situation and it corresponds to the entire view of the world” — an infinite number of individual perspectives smoothed into one cohesive thread, much like the winding sculptures on view here.
The bronze work “Cherub,” 2014, exemplifies most clearly Cemin’s approach to parallel explorations of form and effect. Though technically only a fraction of a bronze sphere outfitted with one curling octopus tentacle, the sculpture employs the reflection of three strategically positioned mirrors on the walls and floor surrounding it, creating the illusion of a full sphere outfitted with eight tentacles, sinking down into the “virtual” trompe l’oiel space. Cemin likens the process to Alice in Wonderland’s “Through the Looking Glass.” Playing off reflection — and reflections of reflections — the piece calls to mind the refraction of reality that occurs in mythology. And still, the origins of its mechanics were at least in part a practical concern. Originally a fiberglass piece made for an exhibition on the Greek island of Hydra, its size was limited by the physical constraints of transportation available. “There was no way I could ever carry a piece of this size up the mountain on donkeyback — because there are no cars there — so what I did was, I made an eighth of a piece,” he said.
Ultimately, as Cemin pointed out, our impulse toward myth is far from ancient, and not even confined to haute art or academia. “I love what’s happening now in Hollywood with all those Marvel Comics films — pure mythology,” he said. “It’s like, all of a sudden, America is like India, with all of the gods, or Ancient Greece, or Nordic mythology, with Thor and all that. I think that is fantastic. We need that.”
“Myth and Math” is on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery through December 23.