This compelling exhibition of 11 oil paintings by Francesco Clemente featured two closely related series, “Summer Self” and “Winter Women” (both 2011), which carried on a dialogue. Displayed in separate rooms, they tackled with inventive freshness the artist’s long-standing exploration of dualities such as masculine and feminine, renewal and death, eroticism and spirituality, power and vulnerability.
Hung in the smaller of two rooms, the five medium-size self-portraits in “Summer Self” stole the show. Largely visible from the street through a big window, these paintings loomed amid the buzz of Roman life, adding a layer to their interplay between introspection and alertness to the world. Indoors, one felt enveloped in the works’ intimacy but soon detected in their apparent serenity a subtle inner restlessness. Both “innocent and experienced”—to adapt the famous title from William Blake, one of Clemente’s favorite poets—the artist is seen in half-length, by turns holding a pink balloon, wearing deer antlers, contemplating the stars with a third eye or haloed in a vaporous garland, always set against empty backgrounds of pastel hues.
In “Winter Women,” a dark, cold palette prevails, whereas “Summer Self” is washed in luminous light pinks and blues, or warm yellowish browns. In Summer Self III, perhaps the most evocative painting of the group, a multicolored beaded curtain half-covering the artist’s blue eyes only serves to emphasize them. A shadow falling over his face and right ear is made palpable with touches of acid green. Caught between disclosure and concealment, he seems suspended in a dimension of infinite creative possibilities.
“Winter Women” provides a counterpoint to “Summer Self” in scale (each painting is 55 by 86 inches), chromatic register and concept, and toys with the tradition of female portraiture in witty references to Caravaggio, Thomas Dewing and Picasso, among others. Winter Woman VI, depicting a nude with a mirror, combines male and female traits. Although clearly evoking Bellini’s Naked Young Woman in Front of a Mirror (1515), the figure has the face of a bearded man, recalling self-portraits by Caravaggio and Clemente himself. The union of binaries is also addressed in its two-panel structure, common to the whole “Winter Women” group: adjacent to each oil-on-linen portrait is a stretch of felt painted with erotically charged or symbolic images. Felt invokes warmth, both physical and spiritual, and one is reminded of Beuys’s oblique self-portraits as felt suits.
For Clemente, painting is an enigmatic language capturing the unstable nature of life itself. We see him similarly preoccupied in other recent solo exhibitions: “Palimpsest,” at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (June 8-Sept. 4), and the current “Tarots,” at the Uffizi, Florence, through Nov. 6.
Photo: Francesco Clemente: Summer Self III, 2011, oil on linen, 41 3/4 by 31 1/2 inches; at Lorcan O’Neill.