New York

Francesco Clemente

In his small new paintings and drawings, Francesco Clemente is preoccupied with body parts, particularly male and female genitals, but also the head and heart (the latter in the form of a clichéd sign). They are presented as ritual “oblations” (the term supplies the title for many of the works), that is, as sacrificial offerings. Bloodish brown dominates, but sky blue and shady black add atmosphere. In one work entitled Head, 1990, a head is presented on a white crescent of moon (a nod to St. John the Baptist?). Indeed, this image underscores the implicit violence of the works, though their cool stylization and shamanistic pretense may distract us from it. In one work entitled Oblation, 1990, blood pours from a woman’s severed arms and vagina. (The old pre-feminist superstition of the menstrual mystery—woman’s “sacrifice” to nature, making her its forbidden but also dumb victim?) Again and again the body is presented in a fragmented, dissociated, fantastic way, especially when the scene is explicitly sexual. This is supposed to signify Clemente’s “higher” perception and Tantric, broadly mystical interests—all kinds of visionary and philosophical notions have been used to hype Clemente’s profundity—but I suggest that his paintings are pathological in import, however playfully so.

The breaking of the body into part objects, however glamorously conceived, is psychologically primitive. Indeed, Clemente’s images reek of profound regression, to the point of psychotic disintegration. That is, they suggest a profoundly disturbed body ego, not its sublimation and ideal integration. The question, however, is whether Clemente’s bodily regression (and regressive attitude in general) is in the service of his artistic ego, a clever way of using the body as an abstract device (à la Georg Baselitz); or whether it indicates a genuinely altered, special consciousness, which sees the world differently and in all its difference. Clemente uses such visual clichés as emanating rays (like the “horns” of Moses) to convince us of the latter, but I am not convinced. What we get instead is Clemente’s familiar pose of false innocence—his strategy of coy simplification. Part objects—the good and bad objects of our most infantile emotional attachment—are schematized into a methodical primitiveness and combined into eccentric new wholes, as though by a mad child. The problem is that the transfiguration is botched: Clemente gives us the hysterically scrambled, incoherent body that exists in the infant’s mind—a mind which has not yet achieved mastery of reality, including the reality of its own body.

If, as Heinz Kohut argues, aggression is a disintegration product of the self, then Clemente is subliminally disintegrated, and the aggression in his images is a symptom of this. Clemente is supposed to be a neo-Symbolist, conveying rare and precious—even elated and ecstatic—states of mind. But his images suggest that the profane “mystery” of perversion—the erotic form of hatred, in Robert Stoller’s famous phrase—is more fascinating and “different” to him than the sacred mystery of transcendence. (The old idea that the sacred shows itself through the profane, or that a higher good comes through total immersion in evil—evident, for example, in Pier Paolo Pasolini—does not unequivocally work in Clemente’s images.) One can make perversity as stylish as one wants, but it remains perverse.

For all the sympathy for the human lot suggested in a work such as the one in which a figure sheds enormous tears, Clemente’s paintings are ultimately inhumane in import, and full of archaic, ignorant attitudes, especially with respect to women. They are also less moving than they might be, for their ultrastylization dulls their passion; they are, in fact, faux obscene. Nonetheless, one must admire the deftness of Clemente’s drawings. Indeed, even the paintings are essentially glorified drawings. They have a magnificent sparseness, and their skeletal brevity of line carries colors like so much excess flesh, which, nonetheless, Clemente clearly does not want to shed.

Donald Kuspit