The movement between East & West is integral to Francesco Clemente’s life and work. His identification with India in particular, and long periods spent working in Madras, gave his work an original and mystical dimension when shown in the west alongside the new expressionist painters of the 1980s – especially so as modern Indian art had little international visibility at the time. Since then the resurgent subcontinent and the global art market has brought a new generation to the attention of western collectors & curators, leaving Clemente’s hybrid vision looking outdated. The material and spiritual traffic between East & West has changed, something Clemente appears ill disposed to, judging by the somnolent procession of faceless backpackers moving across one of his new canvases. And yet he was jut such a traveller seeking enlightenment when he set out in the 70s.
The signs of cultural transmission – the sketchy mandalas and snatches of sanskrit - seem both overly familiar and cursorily executed. The diverse symbols loosely scattered across his large canvases diminish rather than increase their mystical charge: in ‘The ark’ a classical temple sits on a vessel above a swollen sea of eastern script, while in ‘Sand bites mandala’ (below) the diagram’s sacred heart is subverted by mobile technology (perhaps signifying the desire for new systems of connectivity to replace the old).
Clemente wants ‘to generate the fragmentary language not of one mind but of many minds, not of one truth but of many contradictory truths, not of one culture but of a dynamic mix of cultures’, but his simultaneous overlaying of western thought (in ‘Letter to Carlyle’) and romantic imaginings (Blake & Fuseli) serves only to confuse rather than illuminate his references. The former delicacy and poetic richness of his watercolours and work on paper has given way to late work that - on this showing at least - seems both hurried and overblown.
Blain Southern, London 30 November 2012 – 26 January 2013