Illuminating the Inner Life
by Anne H. Roberts
The unique photographic work of Alain Gerard Clement has for almost 20 years served as a vehicle for his exploration into the subject of the inner life ó a spiritual search. Two recent exhibitions of his work give dramatic evidence of the development of this important contemporary artist.
In the exhibition Classical Sensibilities: Images by Alain Gerard Clement and George Dureau, organized by the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in conjunction with Foto-Fest 1998, from January 8-March 8, 1998, Clement offers recent insights into his themes. Seven pieces of his new work are exhibited together as an installation titled The Medici Chamber, 1997. Within the enclosed room with darkened walls and focused lighting, the seven pieces in the installation radiate a spiritual power, the perfect blending of technique and subject matter.
Although the photogram and photogenic drawing are part of photography's early history, Clement has so expanded upon the process, especially photogenic drawing that it could be considered his. Carefully rendered drawings on one or more layers of translucent paper become a negative which is placed on special treated paper and developed by the sun. The long process allows the image to slowly develop from what will become the dark ground as if it were "drawn by light." The pictures are then treated to a gold-toning which results in a sepia image within a rich mahogany-black background which is both unusual and intensely beautiful. Each image glows, seeming to radiate its own light, an effect which contributes to its spiritual power.
The essence of spirit or soul is difficult to explain ó but it can be understood in symbolic imagery. As part of his personal mythology, Clement is inspired by heroic figures, characters from universal myth revered for nobility of endeavor or personal integrity. One of these, Lucretia, after Jacopo Francia, 1997, and inspired by a Renaissance print draws the viewer into the Medici Chamber. This beautiful, classical nude is poised at a decisive moment, the end of her physical life. The power of this image lies not in her method or history but rather in the transforming moment of the release of the spirit.Head of John the Baptist, after Guido Reni, 1997, expresses a similar idea, but transformation is complete. The figure is quieter, at peace. The battle for the soul, for enlightment to use a term more suited to Clement's Eastern meditative practices, requires a separation between the body and the spirit – an actual forgetfulness of the physical and its connection to the world. Certainly there is no more apt symbol for this process than Clement's John the Baptist.
The sublime and beautiful image of the martyr is placed within a dark wooden box, covered by glass, resting on a black draped table in the center of the room, a soul freed, distanced completely from the physical world.
The drama of Clement's figurative pictures is balanced in the installation by five symbolic images on the remaining three walls. Indeed if there can be any fault to the installation, it would be that the image of Lucretia is too commanding for the small room, taking attention from the elegant objects on the adjoining and opposite walls. Each of these seems a suitable focus for meditation, a talisman elevated to veneration. While some of these images can be recognized within Christian symbolism, for example, Tabernacle and Cross, they also reference a cycle of death and renewal, a universal myth common in the collective unconscious.
Clement's technique gives each of these objects a near tactile presence contrasting with an aura of immateriality. This effect is most apparent in Cross, and Chalice, both 1997. Chalice shimmers, the inner structure apparent but transparent. Light rays surround Tabernacle, but it seems to glow from within, a beacon, a Grail, leading the way. While each image is a distinct and separate work, being seen together magnifies their effect, inviting the viewer to make his own spiritual connections.
The second exhibition, Alain Gerard Clement, Selected Works, at James Gallery, Houston, January 29-February 21, 1998, displays images from earlier work, tracing the development of Clement's themes.
In the early 1980's Clement became a devotee of an Eastern meditative discipline and began to construct his images in the studio as a way to better translate and control his mental pictures. When asked about his use of certain images, Clement told this reviewer that they just come to him and he follows his instincts. As he explained in an interview with Edward Lucie-Smith for American Art Now, 1985, "I prefer to construct images which are the reflection of those contained within my subconscious ... to reach ... the eye of the spirit." He began to construct miniature rooms containing objects personally symbolic. In photographs of these rooms, scale becomes an ambiguous element. Untitle, Knife, Chair, and Cloud, 1982/83, centers an ornate chair representing the material world in front of a cloud form surmounted by a suspended dagger. This dreamlike image seems concerned with the meditative process, the dagger representing a focused mind rising from a cloud of distraction. This work, later entitled Haunted Chamber Series, was to be Clement's last use of the camera.
Subsequent compositions would be created by laying simple objects and paper cut outs directly on the photographic paper, eventually leading to the photogenic drawings, which proved to be the most effective medium for his developing ideas. The heroic, classic figures and warriors who people these images from the late 1980s and early 1990s refer to a time of grand mythic journeys. Clement sees the desire for an inner or spiritual life and the meditation practice used to attain it as a battle. This theme of a battle for the soul is still evident in the large and dramatic Untitled, after The Battle of the Tritons and Sea Gods by Mantegna, 1997, which appears in the Glassel show. However, this piece and those earlier are not narratives, but subjective explorations of thought processes and spiritual discoveries. In Passage, 1992, a helmeted warrior meditates upon three objects suspended before him, a pyramid, a boat and a circular universe, symbols for his mental journey. These symbols, especially the boat, often reoccur in Clement's work. Journey, 1989, shows a fantastic galley, suspended in a dark sea. Surmounting the craft is a glowing orb, a protector, or the manifestation of the idea behind the wanderer's search. In the smaller Untitled, 1989, from the same series, a single, floating eye is suspended over a stormy sea, shadowy mountains in the distance. This work perhaps encapsulates the essence of Clement's message, life as a journey of discovery for the mind's eye, a spiritual journey inward to the soul.
Anne H. Roberts is a Houston art reviewer.
Editor's note: This essay was inspired by Alain Clement's exhibitions at Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and James Gallery, Houston.