Francesco Clemente at Gagosian Gallery, Amy Sillman at Brent Sikkema, Sarah McEneaney at Schlesinger Limited
“Francesco Clemente: Paintings 2000-2003” at Gagosian Gallery until June 21 – 555 W24th Street -212-741-1111
“Amy Sillman: I am curious (yellow)” at Brent Sikkema until May 28 – 530 W22nd Street – 212-929-2262
“Sarah McEneaney: Self Portrait” at Schlesinger Limited until “June 7” – 24E 73rd Street – 212-734-3600
To view any large-scale exhibition of Francesco Clemente – and they don’t seem to come in other sizes – is to participate in a spectacle of dissipation. The Italian painter, who moved to New York in 1981, is quite capable of magic, but his conjury is fallible. Give him a sheet of watercolor paper, and he can fill it with ineffable, ethereal beauty, finding in the flux and transience of that notoriously quixotic medium a fitting equivalence for his occult sensibility. But give him instead the cathedral-cum-airplane hangar which is the Gagosian Gallery, and it becomes painfully apparent that he is no Giotto.
It’s not as if he is deprived of the abundance of narrative available to a Renaissance master. Mr. Clemente has found as fecund a source of mythology in the contemplation of his own body. Like Stanley Spencer, he has made a personalist Golden Legend out of “the church of me.” The entropy here just seems to come down to quality. Mr. Clemente has the formal and poetic means to produce art of depth and beauty, but he’s shameless or clueless when it comes to sorting wheat and chaff.
The catalogue clarifies what the installation tries to disguise: decline, even within the timespan of this show, 2000 to 2003. The first large gallery has the most recent pieces, which are also the weakest. Tighter, more resolute images are held back, in a holy of holies at the culmination of the show. Shaped like romanesque medallions and painted in white tempera on, of all supports, denim, these 14- to 16-foot high drapes hang, unframed, like baronial tapestries. This does nothing to humble or diminish the fey narcissism of Mr. Clemente’s imagery. His self-portrait leers out of a cascade of crumpled handkerchiefs, each stamped with a year he has graced the world since 1952.
Other works include oils on linen and frescoes. The latter have insouciant charm and whimsy, as if decorations for a readymade ruin. They reference not so much the early Renaissance as fascist-era pastiches of it. The best of them is “Ages of Me,” a triptych with a tightrope walker at one end, Mr. Clemente’s ever-familiar Coptic face depicted as a pinned-on sheet, and a harlequin-jacketted hanging piglet at the other end. The rendering is at once expressively awkward and effusively fluffy, like Chagall – to mention another lazy genius.
A painter of voluptuous intelligence, Amy Sillman is, in Sol le Witt’s phrase, smart enough to be dumb. She has a penchant for cartoon characters and scatalogical goofiness, which she shares with painterly forebears like Philip Guston, in his period of renewed figuration, the Chicago “Hairy Who” painters (Art Green, Jim Nutt, and other devotees of excess), and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But as much as she relates to this roster of personalists- and her art also acknowledges Mr. Clemente- Ms. Sillman is equally enthralled by the expressive potential of Abstract Expressionism. What’s particularly exhilarating, almost unique, about Ms. Sillman is that she has found a way within narrative picture-making to draw upon abstraction unironically. Simultaneously earnest and knowing, she manages expressive wholeness while juggling a bewildering plethora of styles.
“Me and Ugly Mountain” can be taken as a manifesto painting. A pathetic looking cartoon stick figure, the artist-me of the title, drags the mountain on a leash. Taking up two-thirds of the painting, this boulder-like form is filled with a chthonic mass of glyphs and arabesques, a kind of Gorky-Miró-de Kooning soup.
Ms. Sillman’s gestural doodles in this sack of troubles might encourage a view of modernism as albatross. Abstraction used caricaturally to depict fragmentation or mess within a conventional picture is, after all, a post-modern convention as old as modernism itself. But unlike her contemporary Terry Winters, who hedges his bets, quoting outmoded salon abstraction of the 1950s equally for decorative and conceptual effect, Ms. Sillman doesn’t perform her abstraction in quotes. Somehow, there is a seamlessness in her painterly meanderings from language to language without a capitulation to mindless eclecticism. Her surfaces are as truly alive as her narrative. She paints with the driven intensity of an “outsider,” but is constantly in dialogue with other art, living and past. She is the insider’s outsider.
Sarah McEneaney’s faux-naïve idiom is equally removed from the hubris of Francesco Clemente and the stylistic high-jinks of Amy Sillman. Nonetheless, as an alumna of the Philadelphia Academy she can hardly claim outsider status. She exhibits frequently in Philadelphia, where she lives, and will be the subject of a solo show there next year at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Like Mr. Clemente and Ms. Sillman, she has a marked affinity with oriental miniatures. A set of gouaches were made in India and have an appropriate density. But tension between awkwardness and exactitude energizes her best work, regardless of scale or where it is made. She paints in egg tempera on wood, a medium whose glowing effect and strenuous demands obviously suit her somewhat nutty fusion of observation and interiority.
Her figures – most often self-portraits – recall middle period David Hockney in the crampedness of their handwriting. Her best work, however, is depopulated, although expressing this preference favors painterly virtuosity over psychological intensity. “VCCA VA9” (2002), a studio interior, is a *tour de force*. There’s a push-pull between a naïve need to get down detail, such as the cushion, rendered stitch by stitch, and a sophisticated willingness to let go, as in the artfully splattered paint on the studio floor. The picture within the picture, kitty-corner with a landscape-framing window, coyly reveals the subtlty of an ostensibly primitive language.
This article first appeared in The Sun, May 22, 2003