“Even the most optimistic person today will think there is cognitive error in the air,” says Francesco Clemente, sitting on the orange sofa in his sprawling second-floor artist studio overlooking Broadway in Manhattan. . “Maybe things aren’t quite known the way they should be. And so I decided to go back to the beginning of the era, ”he continues to explain. “I needed to go back in time and see where all this psychotic behavior started.”
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, unable to travel and mulling over the chaos of the news, the artist turned to Homer’s “The Iliad”. Ancient history, reproduced from oral interpretations and then reconstructed from written fragments, has undoubtedly changed over the course of several millennia. A similar spirit of replication is reflected in the nine new paintings by Clemente, currently hanging on the walls of Vito Schnabel’s gallery in Chelsea. The works, presented collectively under the name “Fragments of Now”, have been painted over the past year.
Clemente repeats the same visual imagery – a simplistic rendering of an ancient Greek helmet, painted in shades of Siena against a black background – in all of the paintings. The most notable variation of each is under each helmet, where Clemente has inscribed freehand text fragments from “The Iliad” along with the date of completion of each painting. He left that final detail to a mixture of fate and free will.
“I open the page at random until I find [the right text]”says Clemente of the accompanying word selection.” Whenever I find something, I never look for something better than what it is. I think that makes me an artist.
At first and second glance, the imagery is the same – red and black color scheme, helmets with the same outline and embellishments – the differences emerge by shade, for those attempting the research process. In the final paint of the series, the shade of orange seems to shine a bit more. “Just by doing things, they change,” says Clemente; it is also clear in how the memory of the “Iliad” has changed over time. “And there is something to be said by doing the same thing over and over again.”
On a nearby table, the artist was working on a watercolor; a bunch of paints and brushes suggested he could return to work at any time. A series of paintings of black flags on a blue background were created in the run-up to the 2016 election and are lined up at regular intervals and tilted in the Great Hall. Clemente’s studio is also a decorative tribute to his continuing relationship with India, where he moved as a young artist from his native Italy and established a studio before landing in New York. He often returns to India and continues to collaborate with local artisans. Clemente notes that he will be on the first plane to return when the trip resumes.
Clemente, who lives a few blocks from Greenwich Village, has a second studio in Greenpoint but has spent the entire pandemic working in his Manhattan space. The year was punctuated by feelings of displacement, nostalgia and loss: “All of this is a good subject for a painter,” he says.
The artist also often turns to the world of poetry – a 2018 show was inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca – and he has collaborated with some of New York’s most famous to illustrate their point: Allen Ginsberg, Rene Ricard. A collaborative work by Ricard is framed on the wall next to the entrance to his studio. For his paintings “Fragments of Now”, the relationship is reversed: the words are used to illustrate the repeated visuals of Clemente.
Although he looked at war imagery for the visual component of the “Fragments of Now” series, all of the text he gravitated towards referred to nature. The paintings arise from this contrast: the noise of men against the silence of nature. “I was never able to choose a fragment that had to do with the war,” he says. “I discovered in the text all these windows on nature. So there is the battle, but then there is the indifference of nature. And nature’s indifference is the subject of our time, of this moment.
Clemente is Cartesian in his two ways of looking at the concept of “now”. There is the vertical approach – we face eternity – and a horizontal approach rooted in cause and effect. The most salient now is the pandemic, and the artist is keen to put the disaster in context. It affects everyone everywhere (albeit unevenly), so it’s hard to ignore it. “It will be important after all of this is over to remember that probably two-thirds of humanity is suffering from a permanent pandemic of war, of poverty,” he says.
The last painting in the series reintroduces a human presence in the text. “The legend says:” with your back to the sea, far from our native lands “. And I thought it was a beautiful legend to finish the job. And also, in a way, that could be a legend for America, ”he says.
The human presence is also the final collaborator of his paintings. “Always the work is finished by the audience, and it is finished by the audience when you see a person in front of the painting. You immediately see the painting in a different way, ”he says.
“I’m just a medium,” he adds. “There’s the brush, there’s the paint and there’s me, but we’re all the same. We are not responsible. I am not responsable.
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