Walking into the School of Art’s 32 Edgewood gallery felt like walking into a refuge from the busy world that characterizes life at Yale and New Haven. Alone in the space, I was at first overwhelmed by the utter silence and sense of serenity that filled the room. Yet, when my attention turned towards the paintings that conform Francesco Clemente’s exhibit “Clemente>Brazil>Yale,” I quickly realized that the peaceful space was the perfect medium to grant each unsettling image the freedom to tell its story. The exhibition, curated by School of Art Dean Robert Storr, holds thirty paintings that Clemente, a native Italian, created from 2006 to 2008 during several trips to Brazil. The works are hung around the room so that each larger piece is followed by two smaller paintings, part of Clemente’s “Actors of Terreiro” series.
Though the paintings are united by their source of inspiration, as someone who does not have a great understanding of Brazilian culture, I did not find that influence to be extremely evident. But it is clear that many of the works commented on religion, specifically through references to Brazil’s Roman Catholicism. “Father” depicts a pallid, small man dwarfed by a papal hat; he looks almost inanimate with his big eyes and tongue lolling out of his mouth. The painting’s focus is on the ornately decorated hat. With its aesthetic beauty, the painting goes beyond the typical interpretation of this-painting-is-accusing-the-church-of-being-vapid protestant-reformation-2000. Another work, “New Paestum,” also critiques the Church in a glaring way by portraying arms coming out of unidentifiable bodies under priestly robes.
Another motif that seemed to unify the pieces was weaving. (The Directed Studies junkie in me had to note that shout out to Jane Levin during her first lecture.) Different ropes, thread or interwoven patterns appeared through almost all of the paintings, suggesting an underlying interconnected narrative between the exhibition as a whole.
One piece, though inconspicuously named “Actors of Terreiro XV,” shows Clemente interest in sexual exploration (that’s why he chose Yale). Depicting a nondescript body part that looked both phallic and a bit like a vagina, the painting definitely draws the eye. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what was going on. Though my conclusion was indecisive, you definitely don’t want to miss out on a chance to figure out the mystery yourself.
The most intriguing painting, “The Hunter’s Dream,” portrays a needle and thread going through a button. This close-up, pink image is ambiguous at first, and suggests a sexual undertone. The idea of a threaded button, beyond evoking images of penetration, brings about a sense of nostalgia for domesticity, indicating that the hunter misses home for more than one reason.
As Clemente is a celebrated international painter living in New York, I definitely wondered why he would choose to locate his first substantial exhibit in the United States in New Haven. That being said, while it is here, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to enter the world his paintings create. The exhibition, which runs through June 2, is a must-see for Yalies and New Haveners alike.