Elena Climent (b. 1955) draws upon, and reinterprets, the Mexican tradition of personal altars (retablos), which feature carefully arranged votive candles, family pictures, and household saints. Many of her images suggest child’s play. With cardboard or paper cutouts depicting dollhouse-sized rooms inhabited by toy figures and animals. Others are dreamlike landscapes that appear through the windows of rooms where Climent has lived — in her native
Mexico City, in Spain (the homeland of her artist father, Enrique Climent), in France. Or in New York City, where she moved permanently in the late 1980s. Her presence in these scenes is implicit rather than physical. Filtered through her imagination and daydreams of times and spaces past.
What Climent calls “lateral altars” consist of niches, shelves, or tables. And circumvent Roman Catholic formalities by allowing their owners to express themselves freely. Through their arrangements of supplicatory objects. Worshipers tell stories of their lives that are, for Climent, “not so perfect or orderly. She refers back to the Mexican artist María Izquierdo (1902-1955). Who painted cupboards (alacenas) filled with candied fruit and other items that marry Catholic iconography with Mayan ritual.
Climent brings this impulse up to date, bypassing the open-air market foods of past times in favor of the modern supermarket’s bright packaging, cans, and bottles, all reproduced with meticulous realism. Replacing colorful folkloric figurines are plastic Batman and Barbie dolls, while the alacena is updated with a bookcase. On one shelf we may find volumes of German philosophy and French poetry alongside small action heroes and photos of Climent and her family members. On another, a Day of the Dead toy skeleton might lounge upon an array of books including the Quran and works by Rainer Maria Rilke. Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Aguilar Mora.
Climent works in oils, watercolors, and pencils, and has recently created giclée prints using an iPad. Which she compares with Vermeer’s camera obscura. In that both technologies allow artists to introduce tiny details. The mail and random objects seen in Squared Bowl with Envelope (2013) are enriched further by the appearance of Climent’s (tiny) reflection in the Christmas ornaments — a modern-day Old Master effect. The iPad, she explains, allows her to draw the image forming in her mind without having to address such technical concerns as the blending of pigments, nor the imperfections of such traditional supports as wood or canvas.
Elena Climent ’s still lifes come alive through her juxtaposition of vibrant traditional Mexican colors and vivid tilework with up-to-the-minute gadgets like laptops and cell phones. An array of kitchen utensils jostles with items from her work desk, such as brushes and pencils, to represent the life of the artist herself. Post-it notes offer reminders to buy ingredients for a cherished dish. Or record the title of a classical musical composition not to be forgotten. All become portals into Climent’s rich cultural repertoire.
Elena Climent is also an accomplished muralist: commissioned for New York University’s Languages and Literature building. At Home with Their Books (2007-08) features six panels covering 10 x 30 feet and depicting the workspaces of the writers Zora Neale Hurston. Jane Jacobs, Washington Irving, Frank O’Hara, Pedro Pietri, and Edith Wharton. On top of each panel is a fantastical portrayal of the author’s primary themes. And at a library in Mexico City. Climent has depicted the history of writing from Alexandria and Mayan glyphs to Marco Polo and the development of braille.