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The Artist of Our Time? : Francesco Clemente is talented, prolific and commercially successful, but his place in art history is unsure

August 19, 1990|KRISTINE McKENNA

A gifted draughtsman with an extraordinary command of pictorial conventions, Clemente is an explicitly autobiographical artist who casts himself as Everyman, then positions himself front and center in his paintings. His images often feature an unsmiling, ghostly protagonist with closely cropped hair and a wide mouth, who gazes at the viewer with inscrutable, almond-shaped eyes--a figure easily recognizable as Clemente himself.

Shattering the idea of the fixed self in his ongoing series of mutating self-portraits, Clemente's work is in the Surrealist tradition in its attempt to rupture conventional readings of the self and of reality. Like the Surrealists, Clemente perceives the dream state as being of equal importance as waking reality, and his work has an unsettling kaleidoscopic quality. Grappling with erotic fantasies and fears, the figures in his paintings are lost in a hallucinatory hall of mirrors, and a current of dread and barely contained violence pulsates through the interior realm he invokes.

Asked about the dark subtext in his work, he laughs, "I deal with fear in my paintings so I won't have to talk about it."

On another level, his work is a study in dualities--interior/exterior, human/animal, male/female, and especially, spirit/flesh. "The West perceives a big split between spirit and flesh, whereas in India they're seen as intertwined. As to whether I see the flesh as a means of achieving transcendence or an obstacle in that pursuit, it can go either way."

Depicting the body as a mystical vessel in a manner reminiscent of Caravaggio and the French writer George Bataille, Clemente interprets sex as simultaneously a vehicle for transcendence and degradation. His images are a pungent blend of the debased and the sublime and much in his work is inarguably grotesque. Gaping bodily orifices representing boundaries and taboos abound, and he's done several paintings involving orgiastic sex scenes. This sort of imagery isn't unusual in Indian art, with its venerated tradition of unbridled eroticism. However, the notion of flesh as a vehicle of liberation is alien to the West, which tends to view the body as something to be perfected and controlled for maximum efficiency.

Not surprisingly, the work has been criticized as sexually obsessed--a charge Clemente rejects with the comment "There's no more sex in my work than there is in anyone's life on a given day. The sexuality might strike some people as excessive because most people are frightened of and disconnected from the erotic aspect of their nature--and rightly so," he laughs.

While some observers take issue with the abundance of sex in his work, others interpret the paintings as neurotically fixated on death. Clemente objects to this reading as well.

"People say there's a lot of death in my paintings, and I have no interest in death. I've never subscribed to the Western understanding of it, which is that it's an ending," he claims. "I admit that I have given a lot of thought to the subject over the past few years, however, because so many of my friends have died. Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Morton Feldman--there've been so many. Prior to the '80s, I'd never experienced death. And of course, becoming a father made me feel my mortality even more."

A relentlessly experimental painter who uses color with the fearless bravado of Matisse, Clemente makes frequent allusions to the ancient past. His paintings are shot through with references to metaphysical systems, Christianity, alchemy, astrology, mythology and the Tarot. Reinterpreting various traditions--ancient Greek and Latin, Renaissance, Surrealist, Hindu, Expressionist--Clemente is struggling to find new forms in old formats, and in the view of Adam Gopnik, art critic for the New Yorker, this is the greatest challenge he faces.

"Clemente seems to be trying to recapture a historical dimension that's been absent for several decades as painting has become increasingly abstract and ironic," says Gopnik. "He's obviously a gifted artist of genuine sensibility--you can talk about something having a 'Clemente look' and people know what you mean--but he has a very self-conscious relationship to painting and for me, everything in his work seems to be held in quotation marks. He's also a rather theatrical painter, and it's easy to see the set of moves being made. And I wonder if it's possible to restore a kind of classical, Mediterranean high seriousness to painting--and that seems to be one of Clemente's intentions--through such direct means.

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