Francesco Clemente found fame as part of the Neo-Expressionist movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, or the ‘transavanguardia’ as their early supporter Achille Bonito Oliva named them. The intent was to react against the anti-painting sentiments common at the time, and to return to the ‘internal motives, to the constitutive reasons of working’, to re-find a pleasure in the visual image. His work, wrote Oliva, was considered to be ‘accompanied by an idea of nomadic and eclectic art that makes him a protagonist of the Transavanguardia’.
Blain|Southern call him nomadic too, but in a slightly different sense. In 2012/13 he feels ‘a nomadic affinity with the contemplative visual tradition of east and west; while the roots of his painterly vision are in the frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, historic Indian imagery and the Romanticism of William Blake are equally pervasive.’ Now he is apparently not eclectic, but a master of all. The subtitle ‘Mandala for Crusoe’ serves as an indication of this. ‘Originally Buddhist and Hindu… eastern spiritual traditions identify the mandala as a conduit to a deeper level of consciousness, allowing the mediator a sense of oneness with the cosmos. Conversely, at the centre of Clemente’s mandala is the empty, mundane, everyday life.’ Then there’s some stuff about imagination being our saviour. Then this:
‘The group of exhibited paintings are thus Clemente’s tools, through which, like Crusoe shipwrecked in isolation, he composes and narrates a belief in a common experience free of cultural divides or contemporary materialism.’
This, to me, is an incredible statement. While the world of literature is being crushed under the weight of its own self-awareness, paranoia viz. cultural imperialisms and ‘Orientalism’, and irony, the Art World (capitals) can still put out statements like this, printed en masse on high gsm paper. While the common cultural perception of Crusoe isn’t the slave-owning, Protestant-work-ethic, ‘civilizing’ man of the book – a man who is shipwrecked on an “untouched” desert island and immediately sets to work in making it like 18th Century England – you would think someone would have said something before Blain|Southern announced one of the most successful and enterprising colonisers in English Literature as a model for open-minded contemplative isolation. It is the title. It is in the title.
This isn’t chastising Clemente for not reading Robinson Crusoe; that is only part of it. It speaks to the depth of Clemente’s engagement with his inspirations. A nomad is someone with no fixed home, who wanders around unsettled. Clemente’s work exhibits eclecticism, not in itself a dirty word, but with Clemente in this show only reaches as far as being a pile of curiosities and disparate elements that he doesn’t quite synthesise into a viewpoint. Instead, he magpies bright looking things from everywhere and throws them together however you like. There are fourteen paintings in this exhibition. There are ideas enough for about three absolute masterpieces – well thought out, considered, cunning.
Only having three ideas isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is an apocryphal story in which Einstein explains to someone why he doesn’t carry a notebook with him to record his thoughts: “Oh, I’ve only ever had three ideas.” Actually, most artists only ever have one good idea. People like Bacon, Giacometti, Magritte, re-use and re-use imagery and ways of working again and again – the breadth of Bacon’s research might even be called eclectic – but they get away with it. Actually, they thrive off it, because they become part of a single coalesced language built from their one idea of the world; one synthesised, overarching viewpoint.
This is what Clemente lacks. His repetitions become repetitive, more like stock photos than favourite themes. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to them, they just turn up on a gallery wall almost by accident. They don’t fight for themselves; you feel as though anything could have turned up on the walls of Blain|Southern in late 2012. They fail to draw the awed hush that is the saving mechanism of a lot of average work, from expensive to cheap galleries. ‘The Ark (2012)’ is ‘where a chorus of animals from Noah’s ark sit atop an ancient Greek temple and float upon a sea of Sanskrit text.’ Why? I would ask a similar question of a work I actually quite like as an image – ‘Chasing the star’ (2012) – where a ‘Creation of Adam’ type scene is going on inside the body of a nonplussed horse (the direction of whose head doesn’t quite match up to that of its legs or neck), while another human head protrudes from its arse to look at a shooting star. It is quite a good image – the shadows of the internal scene almost make up the shadow on the horse’s leg, the overall curve of the human body/horse’s back and neck is quite nice – but why? It could just as easily have been another image; I don’t feel any overarching reason why this one is the one we got from the combinations of Clemente’s vocabulary. I’m not asking for rationale as such , I just want to believe that this is the most perfect combination of Clemente’s researches; instead I believe it is just one combination.
Clemente’s best work comes when he leaves out symbolism, political commentaries or overt Buddhist/Hindu references. ‘The Backpacker’ (2012), where a horde of backpacking silhouettes walk across the picture, keeping contact with the ground as it turns vertically downwards, ‘Candy and Chloe at the gate’ (2012), a daubed sex scene is framed by a curtain, watched by two suited men in off stage to the right and left, and ‘The sky on the wall’ (2012), a dove-shaped hold in a brick wall revealing sky that is all straight out of Magritte, are the best things here. Magritte-like playfulness and unease about the truth of what exactly is going on in the picture, which gives them a certain degree of intrigue.
For the most part, however, this exhibition seems to have been unceremoniously “churned out”. They are all thin pigments on unprimed linen which seems to be voguish at the moment (Ofili, Doig…), and has the effect of washing the colour out with the linen’s beige. It is work that takes our interest for granted, assumes our disbelief already suspended. They are “images” rather than pictures, and sadly they are of a religion that is unceremoniously incoherent and becomes shallower with time spent near it. Clemente has a record of coming up with the goods, but sadly this time he has taken his resources for granted.
*** 3 Stars
Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Francesco Clemente, ‘Mandala For Crusoe’ runs from 30 November 2012 to 26 January 2013 at Blain|Southern, 4 Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP.
Main Image: Francesco Clemente, Mandala for Crusoe, Installation Shot, photo by Peter Mallet, courtesy Blain|Southern 2013