Last year the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art assembled an exhibition built around six cloth tents by Francesco Clemente. The exhibition was titled Encampment. Clemente is an Italian architect turned artist who gained international recognition in the 1980s as one of the leading Neo-Expressionists.
For much of his career, Clemente has divided his working time between his studios in New York City and Varanasi, India. Clemente has made a point – throughout his career – of functioning in multiple worlds and between worlds. His interests and imagery bridge East and West, spiritual and profane, contemporary and historical, as well as personal and cultural.
I’m focusing on this exhibition because it clearly illustrates the notion that artworks – even those with less obvious diversity – are layered with multiple formal, cultural and personal elements. Mature artists are aware of this complexity and work to bring those elements together to make a cohesive statement.
The tents that comprise Encampment were made to order from the workshops of commercial artisans in India. Clemente then painted their support poles and canvas surfaces with colors, patterns and images. This cross-cultural collaboration between Italian artist and Indian craftsmen is the first layer in this multi-layered exhibition.
The tents are traditional Indian shelters made in local workshops using traditional processes. The paints come from well established sources and were applied using classical techniques. Some of the images and patterns Clemente painted on the tents refer to iconography from ancient India.
Overlaid on these time-honored Indian references are new references Clemente brings from his Western heritage and our contemporary world. For example, many of the images painted on the walls are self-portraits. There are also angels, businessmen and erotic scenes. Tying it together are color choices, compositions, and a drawing style that are all unique to Clemente.
Possibly the most important overlay in the entire exhibition is that this is an encampment of nomadic tents – fabricated by workers who build real tents for real nomads – commissioned and modified by an artist who moves readily and frequently between his two homes on opposite sides of the world.
Clemente weaves and blends all the elements in the exhibition – formal, cultural and personal references – into one complete experience.