New York

Francesco Clemente

Sperone Westwater Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery

Francesco Clemente’s double show presented a different sort of problem, for the difficulty here was not that he has been content to stand still but that in seeking to develop his position he has chosen the wrong move. These two ill-conceived installations were by another artist who falls into the trap of overproduction, but who makes a virtue of his handicap, turning his fecundity into a thematic root around which an ever-expanding body of work can grow. And this body of work is nothing less than a protean discourse on the body, particularly the male body; a metamorphosis of the physical into a graceful, diaphanous state of near immateriality.

At its best Clemente’s work is an investigation of a fractured self, a self ambivalent about its acknowledged desire to dominate. To the extent that that self proves to be an elegant little princeling with an unusually avid appetite for the polymorphous perverse and only a self-congratulatory self-consciousness, the work’s merit is to be intolerable,What these pictures of endless penetrations and languid stares, of the enraptured fascination with self, accomplish is that the sexualized gaze of the male is deflected from its object and internalized in an ambiguous narcissism. The work then serves as a broken mirror showing the (male) viewer a deeper structure of the quest for power. This is work about territory and subjugation—pissing and penetration—a display of force in the guise of creativity. There is a possessiveness here that, in its indiscriminate overproduction, disdains possessions in favor of a continuum of power. The work succeeds in direct relationship to the degree to which it, or what it conveys, is intolerable, and is intolerable only when it takes the risks of an attenuated dandyism and claims authority through impermanence and dispersal.

And so the new paintings must be judged failures because they are too obvious, too physical. This is made particularly clear by the unhappy conjunction of these shows with Julian Schnabel’s second exposition this season of heavy paintings which, in their unimaginative way, seek to dominate through the inordinate display of material alone. Clemente’s paintings here are shockingly clumsy; we have come to expect a greater finesse, a more subtle nuance. And they are clumsy not only in themselves, but in their presentation, relying overmuch on their context within the installation—which again seems too obvious a way to make a small thing large, to expand a territorial claim.

Thomas Lawson