Important Art by Francesco Clemente
In watercolor, surrounded by a thick blue border, against a blue-gray backdrop, stands a ruddy human right hand, palm facing us. There is no suggestion of dismemberment - the wrist is merely out of the frame - but no other body parts are visible. Standing on each finger, scaled to the finger's width, is a different wild animal indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa: a rearing zebra on the pinkie, a tiger on the ring finger, an elephant on the middle finger, a lion on the index finger, and a giraffe on the thumb. Like most of Clemente's work, it invites a multitude of interpretations; the menagerie could represent our evolutionary ancestry, from which we draw our most natural, effortless tendencies; the diminutive scale of the creatures in relation to the human hand could suggest the human ambition to rise above the status of animals; or each of the creatures' contribution to informing the human spirit. In Hinduism, the five fingers of the hand are understood to represent the five continually flowing energies of the human body - known as Mudras, in an image borrowed from Middle Eastern culture of the Hamsa. This piece is representative of Clemente's early work, which reflects the influence of conceptual art, such as that of his mentor Boetti, on his work.
Against a backdrop of blue bricks, two nude figures interact with the standing corpse of a horned she-beast: a distressed man stands holding its severed head, while a more comfortable looking woman reclines underneath while suckling the beast's teat. A rope, tied as a harness around the beast's torso, dangles from the top of the frame. In the early 1980s, Clemente had incorporated Indian influences into his work and begun to become a fixture on the New York City art scene and his work began to more clearly incorporate themes of violence, sexuality, and other distortions. The unsettling juxtaposition of violence and relaxation, beauty and the grotesque in this work is not unusual among artists influenced by the Surrealist movement; what is perhaps more distinctive is the way it suggests that we are nourished by the bodies we kill, and even perhaps that there is no other way for survival among living creatures.
The image is painted in oil with bold, violent, colorful strokes. A man who resembles Clemente seems to stare, mouth agape, at the viewer. There is something unsettling about the figure: his face is a hollow mask. Small, pale versions of himself sit inside his ear listening, inside his eye sockets watching, inside his nostrils sniffing, inside his mouth moaning a word. They are confined within him, but they define him; his real face, his real identity, is a facade. This is a visual representation of the second major existential crisis Clemente reported having in 1971, when he became aware that he has no self - that what he thinks of as his personal identity is a hollow mask, and that he does not know what fills it.
Influences and Connections
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