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The first view of Francesco Clemente’s painting, at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Temporary Contemporary facility, includes such sights as a naked man shoving a gun in his mouth, a decapitation, assorted homosexual couplings, fingers being shoved into eyes and mouths, bodies in cocoon-like capsules, a cascade of red pills and a fellow with a painting smashed over his head.

This update of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” is not the only impression of Clemente that appears in his show at the TC. There’s Clemente the Italian, upholding his heritage by rescuing the Pantheon and painting frescoes. Clemente the Indian miniaturist paints such private scenes as a nude man simultaneously laying an egg and vomiting.

Moving on around the globe, Clemente the Japanese painter deftly sets forth a broom and parts of reclining nudes in a few lines. And as a Symbolist dreamer indebted to Odilon Redon, Clemente conjures up some near-magical images that seem to float. The 80 works on view run from gargantuan paintings to mere slips of paper, from the rough and visceral to the delicate and sublime.


Clemente, who was born in Naples, Italy, in 1952, lives in three places--Rome, Madras and New York. His work reflects the dislocation of a wanderer, as well as an international assortment of influences. According to the catalogue essay, “He prefers to think of himself as a ‘minor artist’ whose itinerant behavior is a kind of protection against the strictness of a prescribed logic or expectation.”

He has the “minor artist” concept right. Though Clemente is one of the most successfully promoted artists to come down the Neo-Expressionist pike, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about. He is capable of dishing out strong images--say, a mammoth head with tiny faces in its eyes, mouth and ears--and he can evoke moods of purity and depravity. Despite the awkward appearance of much of his work, he also can draw with elegance and grace.

Unfortunately these abilities don’t coalesce, perhaps because his territory is too wide and his vision too short. The central themes in Clemente’s work turn on vulnerability and ephemeral experience, but he subverts them by flitting from culture to culture or thrashing around in heavy head trips. He wants to appear both innocent and wise; instead he just seems obsessed with his own fantasies.

Over and over Clemente portrays himself as a vacant being with an oval head, receding hairline, almond eyes and enlarged lips, sometimes painted bright red or pink. He muses dreamily with a bandaged figure in “Everything I Know.” In one “Self-Portrait” his face is spattered with blobs of red paint; in another he appears to have a bird’s beak in his mouth. One panel of a large fresco called “He Teaches Emotions With Feelings” depicts the artist as a nude figure who is bound, poked and violated at every turn.

The catalogue essay politely asks us to dismiss our “deeply ingrained Western attitudes” about bodily orifices and to accept Clemente’s fixations as “intimations of a possibility of ‘liberation’ through the body.”

Trouble is, the tone is all wrong. Clemente may want his people to represent a sort of spirit-body exchange, but they come off as infantile slobs or deranged adults who do violence to themselves and others while wandering around in a semi-dream state.


The Clemente show (to March 29) is the first of four mid-career solo exhibitions scheduled to appear at the TC during the year-long engagement of “Individuals.” Other artists in the series are David Salle (April 21 to June 14), Elizabeth Murray (July 28 to Sept. 20) and Donald Sultan (Nov. 24 to Jan. 10, 1988).