In Francesco Clemente’s monumental The Senses (Sight, Taste and Hearing), three of the traditional five senses are depicted in enigmatic constellations where human figures are variously positioned within outsize body parts. The images are drawn from a series of gouaches, now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, created in the early 1990s in collaboration with billboard painters in Chennai, India. A decade later, Clemente enlisted the tapestry workshop Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos in Guadalajara, Mexico, known for their work with Sandro Chia, John Currin, and George Condo, among others, to produce the present triptych. This recycling of motifs and subject-matter in different mediums is characteristic of Clemente’s oeuvre, and, according to the artist, relates to a fundamental methodology: “A lot of what I make has to do with the game we used to play as children, when everyone would sit in a circle and whispered a word in the next person’s ear until the original word totally lost and some other word would pop up. I’m very interested in this mistranslation of languages.”
The present work underscores two crucial influences on Clemente’s practice: that of Alighiero Boetti, a friend and mentor during his early career, and that of India, a country whose manifold visual cultures have inspired Clemente since the ‘70s. In 1974, Clemente traveled with Boetti to Afghanistan, where the latter used local workshops for his embroidered tapestries. Clemente was fascinated by the collaborative aspects of this process, later noting the importance of such modes of production to push “the limits of the self and one’s taste.” Seeking to escape what he considered to be the stultifying atmosphere of the Italian art world, the artist began spending time in India, where he sought to not only study traditional artistic and philosophical practices but also immersive himself in the country’s contemporary life. In Chennai (then known as Madras) he was especially captivated by the large, hand-painted images advertising Bollywood films around the metropolis and soon initiated a working relationship that would come to span decades.
Discussing the imagery of The Senses, Clemente relates it the “veils to reality” as encountered in “contemplative traditions, both in the East and in the West.” The relationship between the interior realm of the mind and the exterior of the world has always been of great interest to the artist, and he often images the body in its capacity as a portal that both literally and metaphorically transmutes the world around itself. Here, the panels present, respectively, the organs related to the sense of sight, taste, and hearing, each containing human figures that partake in sensuous and fantastical activities. A caressing couple sits in a large eye, a pregnant woman in an ear, and on the tip of a tongue, a small head protrudes.
Symbolically suggestive and with roots in mythological precepts, these images are exemplary of how Clemente’s iconographies expand beyond themselves, immersing the viewer in his imaginary and spiritual vision of the world. Tapestries and patterned fabrics have been a key part of Clemente’s oeuvre since the ‘80s and continue to play an important role in his mature career. In recent decades, the artist’s luxuriously decorated tents, created in collaboration with craftsmen in Rajasthan, have been exhibited internationally at, amongst other places, the Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut (2018–19), Carriageworks, Sydney (2016), and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams (2015).