The original impulse in my life as an artist was to write and to break from writing into image.... Art is the last oral tradition alive in the West. - Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente, the nomadic Neo-Expressionist painter and sculptor, continues to pursue his travels and artistic investigations, and, fortunately for New Yorkers this Fall, has brought back the resulting documents to two concurrent shows: Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India, at the Rubin Museum and Two Tents at Mary Boone. Clemente follows somewhat in the traditions set by writers such as Paul Bowles and Christopher Isherwood, or musicians like The Beatles and David Bowie -- artists who used travel both as a metaphor and a seemingly endless reserve of creative energies from which to renew interest in their pursuits. Bowie said about living in New York, "[In New York] a person finds a place by being out of place -- that means neither being in one place, like England, or another, like the U.S. New York allows you to be both and neither.... It's a home from home, a home that frees you from home."
Clemente has always traversed various boundaries in his work. The geographical, political, and sexual have all, at one time or another, been routed through his explorations of other cultures in an impressive variety of media. It is misleading to say that Clemente's work is about the breaking down of perimeters; rather, he renders them porous through his work and peripatetic lifestyle. He lives and works in New York, Italy, and India throughout various parts of the year, working in painting, sculpture, prints, pastels, and watercolors.
In the exhibition India at the Rubin, we might also note that Clemente has added time as a space to be explored, presenting recent sculptures "Moon" (2014), "Hunger" (2014), and "Earth" (2014), the best of the offerings. The distancing effect that time has when comparing works from Clemente's early period with the recent sculptures allows us to see how far he has traveled as an artist. These composite sculptures correspond to large gouache drawings on artisanal Pondicherry papers, on which Clemente collaborated with Tamil sign painters in Madras in 1980. Clemente invites us to compare and contrast handmade versus found objects in these sculptures, as well as traditional imagery and post-modern style.
All four sculptures in this exhibition include a pedestal, cast in aluminum, which evokes the precarious scaffolding and ladders common in India. "Moon" features a found Indian military trunk, with a large moon on the side, underneath a patinated metal cast of an old "boom box," a piece of stereo equipment that has quickly disappeared from our landscape but is still something Clemente sees frequently in India. The coloring of the trunk and cast metal evoke the pink of the sandstone of Rajasthan, the region where Clemente created these pieces, bringing a sense of landscape into the objects. Then, one may consider the earlier "Moon"(1985) gouache of a man with a large rock tied to his neck who is seen from below, as if drowning in a large well, creating a visual analogy to Yeats's existential comment, "We are chained to a dying beast."
In the gouache version of "Hunger" (1990), a man bites into the Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. The man's place at the table and gesture remind us of Balthus's"Le Chat de la Meditérranée"(1949). The traditional imagery is painted on a surface composed of composite sheets of thick paper, bound together by cotton strips, creating a grid that suggests Carl Andre or Robert Ryman's minimalist compositions. The sculpture "Hunger" (2014) is fashioned from leftover fabric from tents he created at a tent factory in Jodhpur for the exhibition Two Tents. The fabric tie-dyes and embroidery are common techniques in Jodhpur fabrics. The embroidered quotation on the flag, taken from Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, is encircled again by the Ourorboros, bringing the archaic and the modern together -- a kind of logo for Clemente's brand of post-modernism.
Two tents are exactly what Clemente gives us at Mary Boone: Angels' Tent (2014) and Devil's Tent (2014) are decorative Mughal-style patchwork canvas walk-in environments, ornamented with a fresco-like style of painting. Angels' Tent depicts quattrocento-style angels hidden behind keyholes, or lying on benches or beds, under umbrellas (a Surrealist note). Devil's Tent presents a more narrative, though no less oblique, diorama of a man who looks somewhat like "The Banker" character in Monopoly -- top hat, monocle, big cigar -- surrounded by a honeycomb pattern, smoking, and posing with nude women. Perhaps a comment on the follies of the One-Percenters, or simply "vice" in general, the tent does not particularly distinguish the actions of the Angels from the Demons. Given Clemente's penchant for ambiguity in most of his work, perhaps this is his point.
Since the Eighties, and particularly with his Stations of the Cross series, Clemente has proven to be a strong teller of painterly travel stories. In both India and Tents we find Clemente playing to his strengths as an artist, bringing us along on his painterly journey. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Rubin Museum of Art is at 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.