Sunday, 23 September 2007



(First published 17th July 2007)

Clemente’s recent series of portraits (at Mary Boone, in May) struck many as a continued decline in view of earlier work, a feeble compromise or diversion from the artist’s earlier themes of identity and experience. The view has merit in as much as Clemente’s painting has always stressed a dynamic to appearances, an interaction between the bodily and spiritual or cognitive, between the materials of painting and the experience they foster. The portraits in this context surrender to little more than masks and mannerism.

But in his defence, the problem is not really avoidable, either. Clemente emerged in the late 70s, as part of the Italian equivalent to Neo-Expressionism, The Transavantguardia, along with Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi and ]Mimmo Paladino. In general the Italians’ use of rugged metaphor is drawn more to ritual than satire (see also post 40) but Clemente’s work is distinctive for its clumsy or ‘bad’ drawing; that resists classification as mere Expressionist revival, signals instead a non-literal or metaphoric reference with peculiar directness, addresses more psychological themes.

Work from this time often isolates the figure against a flat ground and dwells upon a compelling sensory engagement, particularly for the body’s orifices or relations to animals in elemental settings as in Untitled (1981). Yet what is pointed to in this way is perhaps less metaphor than metonym or synecdoche (to borrow a little more from figures of speech). For while pictures isolate and exaggerate the sensate to experience, experience is not strictly remote from the body, in fact is usually regarded as a continuum or duality. So reference, while obviously not quite literal in Clemente, might more usefully be thought of as metonymic, where part stands for whole. For example, ‘the artist’s brush saved his palette’ or ‘the fingertips of a feeling’. As a pictorial function, this allows the artist to remind us of the surprising and sensual as well as alarming aspects to physical engagement and how such experiences interact with our identities and ‘self’ images. Indeed, much of Clemente’s work takes the form of self-portraits for this reason.

It grants the bizarre unions and transformations in much of his work in the 80s, a sort of hyperbole, stretching the literal but asserting a metonymy. In works such as Map of What is Effortless (1978) one’s grasp or feel puts one ‘in touch’ with other animals, enables one to discriminate amongst them, while later, Four Corners (1985) amplifies the idea of our grasp of the world, as the ‘grasp’ itself. While still later in Atlantic Avenue I: Southern Cross (2006) hands again frame a view, and their framing in turn makes something of undifferentiated space or sky, so that hands become part of its furniture.

The trend in Clemente’s work is generally toward these more schematic arrangements, rather than the awkward figures of Abbraccio (1983) or Perseverance (1981) for example. By the 90s figures tend toward a stricter symmetry and elegance, as in Protection of All (1990) and East (1993) while other themes assume a more emblematic, banner-like aspect. Abstraction steadily rivals impulse, so that by the turn of the century facture tends toward a fussier finish, as in Fountain (2004) and I (2004). Even when they retain an frankly erotic aspect, as in Love in Orange and Red (2004) the work loses much of its freshness as non-literal reference by this refinement. Understandably, Clemente turns back to the literal from this and is drawn to portraiture by his themes.

The problem now is that rather than rely upon the ‘bad’ and untidy, Clemente is constrained by the schematic; is now over-stylised rather than under; and struggles to render individuals with much vitality or conviction. It is not that the paintings fail to deliver a likeness, but that likeness is restricted to accents on enormous glassy eyes, frontal stares, and pursed lips – as in Damien Hirst (2006) or Kiki Smith (2006). The work arrives at brittle or superficial differences, and elsewhere pastiche, as in Self-Portrait as a Bengali Woman (2005) - a work that draws heavily upon a traditional Indian painting.

The effect catches a little of a current taste for caricature, shares as much with an economy of means in the work of
Alex Katz for example and both exploit a formality to person and picture. Clemente’s portraits of couples, such as Andy Hall and Christine Hall (2004-5) or Ray Learsy and Melva Bucksbaum (2004-5) underline this self-possession in pose, and where head and body seem now virtually disconnected, the work arrives at the antithesis of earlier work, is witty or poignant when not bored or cynical.

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