Paul Saint

Gitte Weise Gallery, Sydney

Visitors to the Gitte Weise Gallery could be forgiven for believing that Aboriginal art is on display. Strange multicoloured poles up to two metres high sway gently in the afternoon breeze, captivating viewers with an enigmatic charm. Contrary to appearances, these are not Ramingining burial poles from north-eastern Arnhem Land but the latest incarnation of the work of Paul Saint.

Saint's sculptures have always been mysterious and beautiful. Dysfunctional objects characterised by a kind of sensory intelligence, his delicate hand-made pottery and elaborate cane-baskets rely heavily on what could be and have been described as craft-based practices. Yet such quibbling about categories misses the point of his work, ignoring its powerful aesthetic dimension and raw imaginative qualities. Take, for example, early works such as Catachrestic Basket (1993) or Inappropriate (1994) which offer far more than a re-evaluation of basket weaving. A slightly bent but alert cane sculpture, Inappropriate teases the viewer with its pale fleshy surface and phallic hardness. There is also something enticing about the cool symmetry of this work that makes you want to reach out and touch it.

Saint's current work is slightly dirtier but more conceptual in intent. Jihad (recycled) (1997) consists of a series of irregular pole structures made from the pages of comic books collected by the artist over many years. These are then sprayed with enamel paint to create a dense and elaborate visual surface. Inside each of the poles Saint has built a platform which is then covered with hundreds of small pieces of cut-up comic books. Ramingining poles are traditionally used to store the bones of ancestors in a ritual of powerful cultural significance. Saint's poles, in contrast, function as a repository for memories of a vapid culture nourished on a diet of mass-media lifestyle prompts and its value-free imagery.

Saint placed a related work on the wall opposite the sculptures. Titled Clearing after snowfall in the mountain along the river (1997), this work consists again of pages from comic-books stuck together in an horizontal line. These are covered in random layers of enamel paint, the overall effect resembling hurried graffiti on the side of a railway carriage or the bright and blinding rays of a kaleidoscope. This is not the first time that Saint has drawn on his boyhood collections as a material for his art. A floorpiece of 1993 titled Selvedge, consisted of hundreds of postage stamps, forgotten in dusty albums for decades, glued together then overlaid in sections with Japanese tissue paper. The process of layering characterising this work - a constant feature of all Saint's sculptures - results in a dense matrix which is abstract and figurative at the same time, mesmerising the viewer with the simple rhythm of repetition.

Humour is another important component of Saint's recent works. This is suggested by the use of comic-books as well as the somewhat absurd titles. The word 'jihad' refers specifically to the holy war waged by Muslims, against unbelievers, as a religious duty. It can also refer, more generally, to an intense campaign for an heart-felt principle. Yet it is difficult to reconcile either of these interpretations with Saint's cool and detached floor sculptures. The title, Clearing the snowfall in the mountain along the river is also tinged with irony. Possibly gleaned from sober 19th century landscape painting, it stands in contrast to Saint's decidedly urban offerings that, craftily, explore the comic.