New York

View of “Francesco Clemente,” 2014. From left: Angels’ Tent, 2013–14; Devil’s Tent, 2013–14.

View of “Francesco Clemente,” 2014. From left: Angels’ Tent, 2013–14; Devil’s Tent, 2013–14.

Francesco Clemente

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

View of “Francesco Clemente,” 2014. From left: Angels’ Tent, 2013–14; Devil’s Tent, 2013–14.

Two tents stood alongside each other at Mary Boone Gallery’s Chelsea space, facing off like opposing armies. Recalling the tents in Mogul gardens (if not the camouflage tents still in use by the Indian military), these richly evocative cloth structures were masterfully crafted. To produce them, Francesco Clemente collaborated with artisans from Jodhpur, India, using techniques such as block printing and embroidery. Then he painted sprawling, multipaneled mural-like pictures on the interior walls. These designs, drawing from a globe-spanning range of references (Christian religious tradition, Sufi spirituality, and the syncretism of Brazilian Candomblé), convey a universal theme: the enduring conflict between angels and devils, good and evil. (This show ran alongside a concurrent presentation of Clemente’s India-inspired work at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art)

On the exterior of the first of the two tents—given a camouflage-like pattern of blue, lilac, and gray—one found a blue angel presiding over the entrance. The interior is cozy and intimate, scented with the pungent aroma of Indian tatami mats and infused with the chromatic richness of the pictorial traditions of the Italian trecento and Renaissance: the dry grays of Giotto and the pink and pale-blue skies of Piero della Francesca. There is very little light, and the images appear slowly as the eye adjusts to the shady interior. Niches separated by rainbows contain depictions of angels reclining in various positions, surrounded by umbrellas and ribbons, leaves and feathers. But these angels are tired, not triumphant. Disheartened, asleep on benches, they seem to be resting, perhaps worn-out from the effort of watching over mankind, perhaps defeated. One is even crucified. Though the ladder—a recurrent theme in Clemente’s work—suggests ascension toward heaven, these angels are earthbound.

The second tent is the tent of the devil. The structure’s exterior is a camouflage in pink and purple, while gloomy reds and blacks dominate the interior and on the canopy a coiled snake ingests two human hands. Here, the atmosphere is dark, for the devil is opaque and, according to William Blake, has no transparency, is absolutely absorbent, and emanates nothing. The work’s principal figure was inspired by Exu, the trickster of the Afro-Brazilian Yoruba religion, often syncretized with Christianty’s tempter devil. He is the personification of the mind, but also the messenger between different worlds—the psychopomp.

Attired like a wealthy banker in a George Grosz painting, this figure wears formal morning dress and a top hat, sports a monocle and a cane, and smokes a cigar. Unlike the falling and exhausted angels, the devil is sure of himself, wealthy, dominant, and triumphant. He embodies the extreme contradictions and conflicts of the human soul: He is sensual, ironic, dangerous, and filled with lust.

The juxtaposition of these tents presents not only a moral challenge but a pictorial one: Viewers must reckon with the vastness and diversity of Clemente’s iconography, his arcane syncretism. Maintaining the softness and tactility of many of his earlier figurations, Clemente conflates Western and Eastern subjects, both visual and spiritual, and his creativity flies high. He captures different cultures with a warm and profoundly engaged gaze, confronting the clash between the chthonic and the luminous. Here, his reflections on morality were explicit as never before, conveyed with stylistic power and mature, humane compassion.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.