Creative Duo Clement Kamena on the Power of Collaboration and the Pleasures of Painting

Serge Clement and Marina Kamena. Courtesy of Gilles Clement Gallery.

Partners in life and art, Serge Clement and Marina Kamena have been making work together for nearly two decades. The couple first met in 1998 while working on a film; the director asked them to recreate a series of Rembrandts for a scene. The job represented the beginning of both a fruitful personal and professional collaboration.

Working under the name Clement Kamena, the duo makes paintings, sculptures, and assemblages that reference—or appropriate—famous works from the art historical canon. For instance, in their new exhibition at Gilles Clement Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut, titled “ILLUSIONS,” they painted glass jars with snippets of works by Vermeer, Michelangelo, and other artistic titans.

Clement Kamena spoke with artnet News about those works and the others in the exhibition, as well as the pair’s evolving interest in art history and painting’s “illusory” qualities. True to form, they answered each question together.

Clement Kamena, Vermeer Replica 9PL (2017). Courtesy of Gilles Clement Gallery.

The title of your new exhibition is “ILLUSIONS.” How does the theme play out in the show and your work more broadly?

Philosophers, writers, and magicians use the word “illusion” to create a gap, a distraction, an aberration. As Delacroix says, “In art, everything is a lie.” Picasso has a similar line: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. Nature and art being two different things, cannot be the same thing. Through art we express our conception of what nature is not.”

For us, art is illusion. We think it is a big mistake to believe that photography made painting obsolete. In all Western art the appearance of the “real” is a mental construction that makes us believe that what we see is like reality. It makes us understand another truth. In this show we made several references to the word illusion using different techniques and different media, such as mixing flat painting with bas relief and even incorporating neon lights.

Clement Kamena, Michelangelo, Delphic Sybil, 8PL (2015–17). Courtesy of Gilles Clement Gallery.

Let’s talk about the “Jar Memory” series. You’ve worked with glass jars—both as physical material and painted imagery—for many years now. What is your interest in the jar, and why do you merge it with canonized works of art?

We are in a period in which we’re being warned of disappearances—the disappearance of species, of oceans, glaciers, wildlife and flora. Something Cézanne once said now sounds like a prophecy: “We should hurry to look at the things because everything is going to disappear.” As all people living on this planet, we are concerned by this news, but as painters we were concerned by the disappearance of the works of art in particular. Yet, we do not feel any real possibility to fight this deterioration. Our only choice is to the damages. In creating this show, we had this theme in our minds.

There was an empty jar on the table. It had been used to preserve chestnuts; it was a preservation container. The word “preservation” sounded interesting to us because it can suggest both a museum case and a grocery store shelf. The idea to put Modigliani in a jar instead of peas, or Rembrandt instead of chestnuts—to create a symbolic, visual representation of preservation—brought us to think that we could virtually put artists in a jar in painting. By co-opting the language of pictorial illusion, we could consider preserving the icons of art history. Archiving and expressing our concern about disappearance by means of painting became evident. Art and artists are the subjects of our pictures and provide us with the ability of wandering in all kinds of artistic fields, from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons.

Clement Kamena, City at Night (2004–18). Courtesy of Gilles Clement Gallery.

In regard to the painted works in “ILLUSIONS,” why do you choose to represent the jars pictorially—through painting—rather than as actual jars in the gallery space?

As we started this project we inserted reproductions of paintings in a glass jar in order to study the reflections on the glass and the slight distortion of the painting. We also built acrylic transparent jars in which we inserted sculptures. We eventually came to the conclusion that, because of painting’s illusory qualities, it is easier to represent something on a canvas than to make a reconstruction of it in the studio.

We trust painting, and therefore we use the pictorial technique to give the illusion of both the painting in the jar and the jar itself. It also allows us to add more events when working on a piece. For instance, for the Michelangelo and the de La Tour paintings, we were looking at these images on a summer day on our computer and a ray of light struck the screen, changing the way the image looked. We re-presented it on the top of the jar as we saw it that day. Painting allows us to use a variety of illusions in one piece.

Clement Kamena, Robert D Jr. (2018). Courtesy of Gilles Clement Gallery.

Shifting to your “Constructions” series, can you tell me how that body of work came about? Specifically I’m interested in the many different materials used.

For the “Constructions,” we gleaned scraps here and there to build them. We gathered elements that evoke buildings, domes, railroads, stations, and quays. We also built some ourselves. An Icarus dream takes place in our realm of imagination, this allows us to fly over the city, waterfront, and sea as if we were birds. When we look at a painting, we look at the flesh of it; the eye can feel the texture, like fingertips. By using a thinner or a thicker texture, the artist can transform emotion into matter and matter into emotion.

Clement Kamena, Black Diamond (2018). Courtesy of Gilles Clement Gallery.

You’ve worked as a duo now for almost 20 years. What does working as team afford you that working solo does not? What is the collaborative process like for you?

Today, a lot of people work in a duo or collaborative team—the Chapman Brothers, Les Lalanne, Gilbert and George, Christo and Jeanne Claude, and in cinema, the Cohen Brothers, the Taviani Brothers, the Dardenne Brothers, to name a few. We think that the artist with a capital A is an image applied to 19th-century figures—the romantic, solitary, genius artist in his ivory tower. It’s not a reality. It is a pleasure to be both working on the same surface. It is not a renunciation of anyone. We’re addicted to it at this point.

ILLUSIONS” will be on view at Gilles Clement Gallery through May 26, 2018.

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