Francesco Clemente, "Clemente > Brazil > Yale"
Francesco Clemente is, says Robert Storr, "a bit of a nomad," which is a bit of an understatement. Born and raised in Italy — and steeped in Italian art traditions — Clemente has also lived sizeable chunks of his life in India, the U.S., and Brazil and wandered between these compass points as ceaselessly as Paul Theroux. Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, has had a long and friendly relationship with Clemente and late last year caught up with the itinerant artist at his New York studio to pay what he thought was just a courtesy call.
But then, this is Clemente, the symbolist painter who packs volcanic meaning beneath his calm surfaces, the friend of Beat legend Allen Ginsberg, devotee of Krishnamurti and collaborator with the likes of Basquiat and Warhol. Anything, it seems, can happen in his art.
"He had just pulled everything out for his New York gallery [Mary Boone in Chelsea]," said Storr. "These works were still sitting there, and he seemed not to have any intent with them. I've had it in the back of my mind to do something with Clemente's work, so I asked about showing them. And this came about."
"This" is Clemente>Brazil>Yale, an amazingly unified exhibition for having been so serendipitously put together. Housed inside the bunker-like 32 Edgewood Gallery — established in 2009 by the School of Art to "expand the role of contemporary art" — Clemente>Brazil>Yale will be up through June 2.
The installation is built around Clemente's extended visits to Brazil over a three-year period (2006-2008). Apparently this was long enough for him to absorb the most grisly, bloody and jumbled aspects of Brazilian history and create an explosion of cohesive works to depict it.
"Clemente spent a lot of time in the north of Brazil, where the largest concentration of slaves, and their descendants, could be found," said Storr.
Portugal, which colonized Brazil, began plying the slave trade in the mid-1500s and did not end slavery until 1880 — the last Western nation to do so. A sizeable percentage of Brazil's population today is descended from West African slaves, many of whom intermarried with the indigenous peoples and the Portuguese. Of the 30 works on view, 18 are watercolor on paper "studies" (Clemente calls them "Actors of the Terreiro") and 12 are massive oil paintings, most of which grew from the watercolor studies. Clemente absorbed so many influences from his time in Brazil, which itself has absorbed cultural influences from around the globe, from Portuguese Catholic symbols cross-pollinating with Afro-Brazilian voodoo (a variant of Yoruba animism called Candomble).
One particularly horrifying and huge painting, "Trophy," shows an African head inside a muzzle, with what looks like a medieval helmet on the head. In many of the works on view at Yale, hands are shown tied or shackled, or the theme of subjugation and violence is implied through the symbols the artist uses.
Compare the "Actors of the Terreiro" series with the similar "The Hunter's Dream." The watercolor is obviously a button, needle and thread, delicately and appealingly rendered. But in the much larger oil, the images seem more static and totemic and the result is far more ominous and frightening, with the grey thread seeming to slither out of the buttonholes like horrible serpents, the needle as big as a harpoon. This work comes closest to echoing Giorgio de Chirico, one of Clemente's obvious Italian influences. Other echoes of Philip Guston and Max Ernst are noticeable, but one feels the presence of these painters in his work without it seeming to be mere borrowing. It seems to permeate his sensibility, in the same way the watercolors bleed into the paper.
"Brazil is an incredibly complex country, as mixed-up as the U.S.," said Storr. "Francesco develops his own variations of these symbols."
Though Clemente, 61, is a contemporary painter, there is seemingly no element of the contemporary world in his work. It's as if he's suspended in a timeless amber world where the dark parts of human history secretly reside. Storr disagrees, saying, "This is the contemporary world depicted here, but we don't pay any attention to it."
In a large self-portrait called "Father," Clemente wears a cardinal's mitre on which fish are painted, perhaps as a symbol of Christianity or of Portuguese fishermen. His eyes are enormous and haunted, like those of a zombie. It is not a serene, warm or ironic image. Indeed, little lightness can be found in Clemente>Brazil>Yale. It's all deep and dark and somber, like art forged in secret behind the back of the dictator. This, in the case of de Chirico, may have been true, as part of his career took place in the shadows of Mussolini's fascist reign. Clemente, the nomad, the cultural sponge, undoubtedly picked up a trace of that from his hero.
"New Paestum," 2006.
"Actors of the Terreiro XXVI," 2007.