New York

Francesco Clemente

To my mind, Francesco Clemente is at his best on an intimate scale, as in these monotypes, all from 1986. Together they constitute an anthology of narcissistic hieroglyphs, a kind of picaresque picture book, each page of which reads as an emblematic autobiographical statement. At the bottom of every monotype is a small, centered, bust-length self-portrait, schematized and flattened and only cosmetically varied (in no. 26 it is completely flattened out by being made featureless). This cutout-style head is placed in different situations (artistic and otherwise), much like a paper doll with a costume for every occasion, a player in a series of brief, whimsically dramatic scenarios. The whole effect is toylike and mischievous, as if Clemente’s little head were a protean personification of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse,” who was always telling one to put one’s “self’ in jeopardy by doing ”wrong.“ Poe’s interest in the exhibitionism of evil—or what would look like evil (the ”underside") to most upright, respectable citizens—is shared by Clemente, who presents himself as a coy saint, subject to various temptations. The result is a new deck of tarot cards, through which Clemente tries to discover his fate.

Thus, in no. 76 Clemente appears yellow-faced beneath a green fragment of a nude female torso, its genitalia vividly displayed, while in no. 5 the little head is black-faced beneath a threatening deluge of gesturally articulated white paint. These—sex and art, and their inseparability—are the poles of his passion. The fixed head is always the foil to and victim of the varying scene, which in general seems unstable and fluid, as in no. 101, with its sea of women’s shoes, heart shapes on stems, and fish, or in no. 74, with its field of images of little couples copulating beneath a little tree repeated many times, as if to infinity. It is Clemente haunted by his little fetishes and fantasies, each faintly lurid in appearance but mythological in import. This aspect comes out most strongly in no. 87, where a green man urinates on the moon and a green woman menstruates on the sun, and the streams of fluid seem to connect them to the heavenly bodies, thus suggesting their divinity. Clemente is perhaps also alluding here to an incestuous relationship between brother-and-sister deities.

In all of these scenes Clemente articulates his fundamental aloneness. This state of solitude is expressed in no. 75 by the image of a little rowboat that sits on Clemente’s head, surrounded by an ocean, and in no. 31 by the depiction of the head in front of a greenish-gray wall with an empty blue sky above it. Clemente’s passive isolation is seductive and cunning; it seems to speak from the heart, but after careful scrutiny one sees that it is the isolation of an intellectual who is subject to the heart’s fantasies and that, ultimately, he seems to remain unmoved. The monotypes show the adventures of Francesco Clemente, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza in one, as he tilts at the fantastic windmills of his imagination. I like the deceptive ease with which each image creates its little cosmos of private meaning, projecting an enigmatic self that remains the same—and thus universal—through all its sufferings.

Donald Kuspit