Progression of Art
Map of What is Effortless
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.
Gouache on paper - Private collection, Milan
Water and Wine
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.
Gouache on paper - Art Gallery of New South Wales
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.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Self-Portrait with Black Gloves
A nude man, again with Clemente's features, and the distorted proportions of a homunculus, holds his head between the fingers of his two gloved hands. Eyebrows arched, he stares at the viewer. Behind him is the blank canvas itself, and nothing else. The painting is entirely in black and white. Clemente's gloves and genitals are the only detailed elements, the rest is set out in bold dark strokes. The painting doesn't necessarily convey anger, but there is an unmistakable note of aggression; his expression seems mocking or confused, and his nudity appears to be more exhibitionistic than vulnerable or sensual. His posture is indicative of a vague, self-directed threat, or of a necessary support to a vulnerable self - as if his hands were gun-like weapons. His use of the gloves suggests that some unknown means is preventing him from directly connecting to his own identity.
Colored chalks on paper - Private collection
The canvas compresses the body of Clemente's wife, Alba, into an improbable reclining pose. Wearing an off-the-shoulder red dress, red flats, red lipstick, and a bulbous golf cuff bracelet, she gazes at the viewer with penetrating, somewhat dolorous brown eyes. Behind her is a backdrop of amorphous blue, giving the overall effect that she is floating in something like a petri dish. The connection between glamour and the unnatural social construction of beauty hints at the way in which our perception of such beauty is unavoidably warped, an illusion grounded in fantasy, and something that contorts and disfigures the earthly human form. Clemente would go on to paint many portraits in this somewhat claustrophobic, distorted style. The details of each portrait vary - some are standing, some seated, while he emphasizes different features and highlights the different clothing and accessories of his individual subjects.
Oil on canvas - Guggenheim, Bilbao
In hues of red, blue, and gray, the figures of eighteen identical men in business suits (or as the title suggests eighteen frames of the same man in a business suit and backpack) walk along a beige platform, then down the side of it. Behind them, a rusty brown wall drips with grime. Whether we are looking at a crowd or a montage, it is the forward motion that allows the figures to demonstrate purpose within these bleak surroundings - just as our goals and aspirations, our own forward motion, allow us to transcend our own surroundings. There is a vitality and strength here in their relentless momentum. But it may be significant also that these figures, despite the purpose that forward motion can provide, must all march inevitably off the platform to the ground below and beyond the frame. While Clemente's recent work has not depended as much on a conceptual basis as his 1970s work, he has never entirely abandoned it; rather, he has incorporated it into a diverse and ever-growing aesthetic repertoire.
Pigment on Linen