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francesco_clemente_conferenceFrancesco Clemente: A Private Geography
Mary Boone Gallery, NY

Through December 18, 2010

Francesco Clemente has always traversed various boundaries in his work: the geographical, personal, and sexual have all been routed through his various explorations in a multitude of media. His exhibit A Private Geography at Mary Boone uptown, his best in many years, proves no exception to this rule. It may be misleading to say that his work is all about the breaking down of perimeters. Instead, he renders them porous through his work and peripatetic lifestyle: He lives and works in New York, Italy, and India through various parts of the year, and works in painting, sculpture, prints, and most successfully pastel, drawing, and watercolor. Failing global economies, bad politics, and wars dominate our news; clearly the civilized world as we know it has gone to fuck; yet to judge by the luminous watercolors and pastels in this show, Clemente has emerged from them all quite unscathed.

True to the Ideal notion that an artist's boundaries end at the edge of the canvas, Clemente gives us a world view as seen from the inside. And an astounding view it is. William Shakespeare wrote, "all the world’s a stage," and in a suite of recent watercolors, Actors of the Terriero (2006), Clemente depicts it. A butterfly rests on a quill pen, poised over a scroll, unfurling over a pile of skulls ("Actors of the Terriero II"); two helmeted heads are impaled on a pike ("Actors of the Terriero VII") -- shades of Hamlet. A crimson robe ("Actors of the Terriero III") and crown ("Actors of the Terriero XIV") whisper Macbeth. Genet, Wells, Homer, and Beowulf...the list of references seems limitless: chains, spikes, bound hands, boats, and animals lend their various metaphors to the bestiary that is in Clemente’s own personal steamer trunk. Another series of watercolors, After Attar's Conference of the Birds (2010), traces elements (birds, fire, timepieces, etc.) from Farid ud-Din Attar’s poem of 30 birds and their metaphorical travels toward enlightenment.

Less engaging, perhaps because of its literalness, is a series of digital prints based on collaged maps of the world. They are reminiscent of Julian Schnabel's Navigation Drawings, though not as successful, perhaps lacking the touch of artist’s hand that is so integral to Clemente's work. That said, they do provide a map of the mind of the artist, so to speak. Bits of antique New York maps locate the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum (as well as Bellevue Medical Center, formerly known for its "Lunatic Asylum"). An Indian map indicates the Ran Nasar Museum; in another, the road to a Roman theater. Clearly, finding the loci of art is never far from his mind in both Clemente's internal and external roamings.

The largest work, "Irons and Rainbows" (2010), combines pastel and watercolor, Clemente’s strong suits, and reminds us of his importance to the Transavantgardia movement of the '80s. Individually framed pieces are linked in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, a perfect metaphor for his internal sense of mapping, and alternate pastel and watercolor in the tessellated surface. The individual elements join to form an iconic depiction of an imaginary Kali: picture a D/s Nina Hagen circa the Palladium Years, holding the leashes of two women, who hold the leashes of two more. A daisy chain, so to speak, representing the endlessness of the Universe; supported by vignettes of eggs turning into birds, snakes, and a weeping eye. A rainbow arches over and through all the drawings, formally uniting all the elements. A master of Symbolism, Clemente doesn’t really explain the elements as much as present them to us, a fitting metaphor for the nature of the universality of art as a language.

Clemente the explorer isn't so much Columbus as he is Bowles; rather than seeking to co-opt the styles of the cultures that he samples, as he has done in the past, he now has absorbed them and reinterpreted them through his own aesthetic vocabulary. Not since his moving, and similarly idiosyncratic, series The Stations of the Cross in the early '80s has he proved so strong a teller of painterly travel stories. We find Clemente finally playing to his strengths, the ability of his work to both transfix and transform us, taking us along on his nomadic voyages, and leaving us off safely back home. - Bradley Rubenstein

dom

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

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