The art dealer, critic, blogger and curator F. Lennox Campello is a well-known figure in the DMV. Less well known, perhaps, is his work as a draftsman, print-maker and, more recently, video artist. In fact, Campello is a prolific artist who has had an interesting and compelling trajectory of work since the 1980s. He, like many contemporary artists, revisits subjects; reworking them through numerous variations, additions, changes in media, and scale. His current solo exhibit, his first in eight years, is predicated on this artistic method, referring to the subjects and the interests they reflect as “obsessions.” One has only to think of Jasper Johns’ returning again and again to the same basic vocabulary of subjects to understand that the word “obsession” should not make one think of mindless repetition, but instead of a development of content that is based on the artist’s biography and his lifelong interests.
Campello was born in Cuba and was a small child when his father became swept up in the Cuban Revolution. A labor activist, he was passionate about his country and felt betrayed by Castro’s version of Soviet-style socialism being imposed on Cuba, replacing one dictatorship with an even more terrible one. The family managed to immigrate to New York where Campello grew up among extended family in Brooklyn. This history and the outlines of the artist’s subsequent biography are encapsulated in a fascinating work in the exhibit entitled Cuban by Ancestry, but American by the Grace of God (2017) that combines charcoal and conté crayon drawing with embedded video and sound. The image features what looks like a portrait of the artist with a heavy beard in the manner of Fidel Castro. He holds what appears to be a picture frame within which the biographical video plays on a loop. To his left is a drawing of the artist as a child in Cuba based on a photograph that appears in the video. The story is brought up to the present with his marriage to Alida Anderson, the death of his father, and the birth of their son. The viewer can listen to Campello’s narration on headphones.
The background of the above work seems to have been chiseled with strange crack-like forms. What they actually are is a “script” invented by the artist who spent two decades in the US Navy as a cryptographer. This is a merger of Celtic Ogham, an ancient rune-like script, with US Navy Falcon codes. The same “cracked-wall script” hiding messages with multiple meanings, can be seen in a number of works including one of a similar concept that features a Brooding Batman in the Batcave (2013), while appropriated videos from the 1960s TV series about Batman and Robin (to which the artist was admittedly addicted as a child) plays next to him. Using cryptic messaging of this kind not only refers to Campello’s intelligence work with the Navy, his patriotism, and his attraction to pop culture, but more fundamentally, to his love of mystery. The artist has always been fascinated by history, mythology, and the imagery of religion and legend. These often overlap in his creative mind. Having been stationed in Scotland for a number of years before returning to the United States in 1992, Campello became deeply immersed in the rich and mysterious history of the ancient Picts and Celts of Scotland and Ireland. The spiritual connection that he developed to the place and its material and visual culture has become almost a second origin for him, weaving its way into the expression of the continuous attachment to Cuba that has never left him.
The current exhibit of nearly 60 works includes many of one of Campello’s great loves: Frida Kahlo. A passion for the Mexican painter that began in the 1970s has never cooled. Frida represents an aspect of the ideal feminine, a woman who, despite horrible physical disabilities and an oppressive relationship with the Communist artist Diego Rivera, managed to be a great artist and an independent spirit. A large charcoal and conté drawing with embedded electronics of 2014 features a sainted Frida with a halo inscribed “Ave Frida/ Es Regina” in an obvious allusion to images of Mary as Regina Coeli. This kind of syncretism of imagery, not always thoroughly successful, can be surprising, but it doesn’t feel provocative. There is a sense of reverence in the way Campello handles these images, as though they are expressing a deeply thought personal understanding of the meaning of holiness and its opposite in the evil of oppression. His heroes are figures like Frida, Lilith and Judith. And when he represents Che Guevara, it’s the Che who signifies opposition to a tyrannical establishment, independence and freedom that he admires, not the murderous revolutionary whom even the perfidious Castro threw out of Cuba. The fierceness of the Picts, who resisted both the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, is a source of their attraction for him, as well as the mystery of why they eventually disappeared.
Two further works in the exhibit and an issue about the installation merit mention. One work is a charcoal/conté/water color, showing a nude female figure running toward the picture plane. Unfortunately the gallery doesn’t like putting labels next to works on the wall, forcing the viewer to walk around with a checklist of numbered works. This separates the title of the work from it, and in the case of Campello (and any other artist who titles his work) this is a problem. A title given by the artist is more than a label. It is part of the work, and will immediately inform the way that a viewer perceives it. Campello’s approach, modernizing and creating his own attributes for mythic figures, or removing conventional ones, means that without the title the work loses that piece of it that gives the image external meaning. The title of this drawing is The Lilith Running Away from Eden, referencing the Jewish legend of Lilith, the first female created in Genesis from the earth like Adam. Refusing to be subservient to Adam, she is spurned by him. Adam’s complaints result in the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, thus not his equal. Some versions of the legend have Lilith become the serpent that tempts Eve. Others have her run away from Eden and become a demon. In any case, here too we have a figure who has become a feminist hero, not simply a running nude.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes (2013) is also a drawing with embedded electronics which makes little sense without its title. Judith is among the heroic figures in the Bible who save the people from oppressive enemies. However, unlike David and Goliath, her tradition is somewhat equivocal, as the means she used to gain access to the Assyrian tyrant was her feminine beauty. Here we have an unconventionally nude Judith standing with a sack over her shoulders. The heads of modern Holoferneses rotate in video clips inside Judith’s sack; that is the heads of “hateful leaders of some of the contemporary nations of the ancient Assyrian Empire, who…still want to destroy Israel” according to the artist. Inserted into the sack are the heads of men like Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Baghdadi, Assad and others.
The work in this exhibit is almost all black and white, mostly on paper with some very small works on bits of white, unfired bisque—a new medium for Campello. The color is in the richness of the content.
The exhibition runs through June 29 at Artists and Makers Studio 2. The gallery is located at 12276 Wilkins Ave., Rockville, MD. For more information, visit http://artistsandmakersstudios.com/category/news-and-events/.