thu 31/07/2014

Francesco Clemente, Blain Southern | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Francesco Clemente, Blain Southern

Painter's first show in seven years is an exotic mix of themes, traditions and motifs

Clemente's equine opus, 'Chasing the Star'

The Neapolitan Francesco Clemente was born in 1952 into a patrician Italian family, the son of a judge. He studied classics in school and architecture in Rome, became a photographer, and then turned, as a fine art autodidact, to painting and drawing. He has spent substantial time over several decades in Madras, where he had a studio, and in Varanasi, with its continual burning pyres for the dead before they are floated off into the Ganges.

Now Clemente lives in Santa Fe and New York, where he moved in the 1980s, working at first with the beat poets, and collaborating with Basquiat and Warhol: so far, so privileged a trajectory through the art world, where he has been on the international circuit of museums and galleries since his late twenties. Now, with his first show in seven years, he is showing 14 large 2012 paintings, under the title Mandala for Crusoe, at Blain Southern’s huge new glass-walled London showcase for the contemporary. Designed by Caruso St John architects, it has recently opened in Hanover Square.

These large paintings - 6-12 ft long, 6-8 ft high - are ritualistic pick-and-mix lucky dips into Buddhist, Hindu and classic motifs. They're interspersed with contemporary references and occasional quotations from the Western canon, leavened and seasoned with a kind of all-purpose Eastern exoticism. There is a lot of gold and glitter too. In Indigo’s Child a standing horse is seen in linear profile against the deep black-blue of the overall background. The animal is urinating and regurgitating cascades of gold coins which rain down on a calmly reclining nude, Titian-lite. 

The Sky on the Wall is a huge bird in flight, azure-blue, marked by floating clouds seen against a brick wall: Magritte-lite this time. The Dove of War (above) contains scrawled silhouettes of planes and bombs, and is flying through a clouded salmon-pink sky. 

The subjects of Backpackers are marching in crowded formation off a cliff. The Ark is a classical temple adorned with animals from Africa, Latin America, Asia; the waves of the sea are Sanskrit script. 

Chasing the Star shows us a dappled grey horse affectionately drawn, its body containing two snuggled-up figures, the head of one protruding from the equine anus. There are two mandala paintings, riffing on the basic form of a circle held within a square with four gates, in a larger circle within a square. In its various Hindu and Buddhist manifestations, often of an impermanent nature and drawn in coloured sand, the mandala is an object for reverence and meditation, a symbol for the cosmos. Under Clemente’s brush, the centre in Newspaper Mandala (below) contains the outline of a man reading a newspaper; in Sand Bites Mandala, he gazes at a mobile phone. The colours here are deeper and richer than the rather wispy pastels that often prevail.

The point seems to be to make, in visual terms, the particular universal and the contemporary timeless, but there are two problems. The imagery seems too obvious, even banal; the execution in various pigments and media on linen somehow unappealingly casual, peculiarly slapdash.

Not to be outdone by the ecumenical cultural grab-bag of the mandala paintings, downstairs there are 11 paintings from 2011 of the apostles, billed as self-portraits. Each robed figure, accompanied by the appropriate attributes (for example keys for St Peter), has also been given Clemente’s face. His appearance is a curious and oddly affecting combination of Roman-Byzantine-Romanesque elements: sophisticated, knowing and naïve simultaneously.

These paintings are interspersed with quotations from the Western canon, seasoned with an all-purpose Eastern exoticism

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