Karma Chameleon

Francesco Clemente: Nostalgia/Utopia
Mary Boone Gallery
Through June 30, 2012

In both his work and his life, Francesco Clemente has made a career of breaking down boundaries. His multimedia approach to art -- through painting, sculpture, photography, and bookmaking -- and his peripatetic, nomad-like lifestyle share a common theme of restlessness and ambiguity. In his recent exhibition at Mary Boone, he has created a suite of paintings that reinforce our impression of him, painting works that run through Colonial Baroque, Afro-Brazilian, Indian, and Modernist iconographies. The strategies employed here, drawing on a variety of sources and influences, seek to present some commonality of experience, of shared ideas.

Here Clemente stays within the lines of paint and objects fixed to canvases, while allowing his stylistic noodlings free range, combining his imagery with a poetic grace. Although individual motifs in Clemente’s pictures can be linked to his change-of-address living arrangements (homes in New York, India, Italy), the precise reading of any work remains elusive. In one painting, "Untitled" (2011-12), an African mask attached to a painting of a radiant sunflower drips two strands of pearls, which coil on the floor like puddles. Another painting, "Untitled" (2011-12), depicts a horizontally bisected diptych with pieces of rainbow-hued barbed wire stretched across the top panel and fragments of body parts and a blindfolded head occupying the lower half. The top panel features a painted quilt or tile pattern that, combined with the razor wire, seems to juxtapose the homey feel of the quilt pattern with the alternately protective/repellent barbs.

"Trungpa" (2011-2012) [above] is a straightforward painting of a Catherine wheel, or mandala, filled with little bird-shaped rocks. The picture refers to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987), who was trained in the Nyingma tradition of Buddism, the oldest school, and was an adherent of the rimay or "non-sectarian" movement within Tibetan Buddhism. The rimay movement aspired to bring together and make available all the valuable teachings of the different schools, free of sectarian rivalry. Throughout his life, and through his teaching, Trungpa Rinpoche sought to bring the teachings he had received to the largest possible audience. Clemente’s painting includes a still life at the center of the wheel -- a vanitas of skull, candle, red bird, and artist’s palette. The reference to the Buddhist teacher might be seen as a stand-in for Clemente, who seeks to enlighten through his art by bringing seemingly disparate styles and methods together.

A large painting of a woman leaning against a lectern, her finger in a small book marking a page or passage, is titled "Temperance"(2011-12). Painted in warm sepia against a bright yellow background, which resembles a Pompeian fresco, the Mannerist distortions of the figure suggest the Italian style and reference Manet's "Woman with a Parrot" (1866) (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Two pitchers are attached to the top corners of the painting, their emptiness suggesting moderation. While the heavy-handed title, like the pitchers, is a little empty, the work itself is quite beautiful. As with much of Clemente's work, it isn't the final destination where we arrive that is the reward for looking; it is the journey we take with him. - Bradley Rubenstein

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Mary Boone Gallery is at 541 West 24th Street in New York, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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