Report by Rachel Le Goff
The artist Francesco Clemente has a smooth head with a distinct
pyramidal crown, regular features, small ears and a deep penetrating gaze
that lends him the air of a mystic. It is this neat, attractive head that
appears repeatedly throughout his art in works such as Contemplation,
1990 and in the beautiful androgynous head that is a totemic presence in
countless paintings and drawings such as Journey 1994-5 and In
Friendship, 1991. In the latter works he gives the head an African
elegance, enhancing the lips and eyes as did the Ancient Egyptians.
Clemente however, is not of exotic origins. He was born in Naples,
Italy in 1952 and was educated in Rome. He lives and works in New York,
the place where any contemporary artist sensible about pursuing a lucrative
career has to live.
Being of thoroughly Catholic latin origin and living in a brash modern
metropolis does not stop Clemente cultivating his fascination with eastern
religions. He studies Hinduism and often draws on the imagery of India
in his work (Everything I Know, 1983). A strong element of spirituality
and a seeming quest to enter supernatural realms permeates all Clemente's
work. He has almost created a new mythology populated with recurrent figures
and motifs. Myths, dreams, fears, lost rituals, tribal initiations, pagan
sexuality, the artist puts us in touch with our primitive urges and reminds
us of our universal origins.
Francesco Clemente - Moon, 1980
Tempera on 12 sheets of hand made
paper mounted on muslin, 91" x 96 3/4"
(Courtesy of Sperone Westwater - New York)
" I " reveals that, for Clemente, the self is not a distinct, but a
permeable entity with borders that shift in encounters with other things,
cultures, and people.
This blurring of identity is particularly evident in the watercolor
Alba and Francesco (1982), in which husband and wife dissolve into one
superimposed image. The works in “Unborn” evoke the paradoxical nature
of Clemente’s art, which has the ability to recall simultaneously both
past and present, man and woman, East and West, the spiritual and the physical,
abstraction and figuration. “Bestiary” draws upon a series of medieval
books that explored the moral and spiritual significance of animals. Revealing
his belief in the equal importance of all orders of life, Clemente has
developed a body of work, in which the human and animal realms, seemingly
so separate, are often merged into unique forms. “Conversion to Her” explores
the presence of diverse human sexuality explicitly portrayed in Clemente’s
oeuvre. The works in “Amulets and Prayers” were all created in India
and demonstrate Clemente’s interest in the elements, numbers and signs,
alchemy, and the five senses, which the artist imbues with personal significance.
“Books, Palimpsests, and Collaborations” explores Clemente’s openness to
collaboration, specifically his connection with the world of poetry. “Sky”
is a compendium of imagery revealing Clemente’s natural impulse to synthesize
when faced with a wide variety of cultures and experiences.
Finally, “Rooms” recalls Renaissance stanze (rooms), in particular
the interiors of del Cossa and Mantegna, which provide refuge from
the outside world. The four spaces that make up “Rooms” house frescoes,
an environment titled The Indigo Room (1983-84), The Fourteen Stations
(1981-82), and La Stanza della Madre. Exploring such subjects as the family
and the Empedoclean philosophy of the four elements, the latter room
was designed specifically for Gallery 203 as a commission for the inauguration
of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997.