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Paints on Fire

Artist Lenny Campello turns a lie into an aesthetic movement.

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Lenny Campello harbors an impish streak. He figures there are about 200 hotel rooms out there whose cheaply framed seascapes he's improved with a soup can or syringe discarded on the acrylic beach. He's buried small statues of three-breasted women all over Scotland for future historians to puzzle over.

But the blocky, color-field paintings in his series “The Color of Wars to Come” at the Red Door Gallery started a decade ago with a more serious joke.

The McLean Project for the Arts in Northern Virginia hosts a painting biennial called “Strictly Painting.” In 1999, it announced that Terrie Sultan, then interim chief curator of the renowned Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, would jury the show. Campello was familiar with Sultan's selections in past exhibitions and worried that she harbored an anti-painting worldview — that she would dilute the show into a multimedia stew of turn-of-the-century techno fads.

“It was my theory that Ms. Sultan would not be in the representational side of painting,” he says. “It was also clear that she — like many curators — was seduced by technology in the form of video, digital stuff and such trendy things.”

He decided he'd try to game the system by reverse-engineering the ideal Sultan entry.

Campello had recently retired from a 23-year career in the Navy. So he took some of his old Navy award ribbons and scanned them into a digital file. He enlarged the images into blown-out pixilated blocks of color. He printed them out and made slides of the printed sheets of paper. Then he lied.

He submitted the images to the show, but instead of identifying the materials as printer paper, he said they were massive oil paintings on canvas.

It worked. Of the hundreds of entries from the mid-Atlantic, Sultan selected two of his for the show.

“When you're self-righteous, you really get burnt,” he says, sighing. In his entry he claimed the paintings were huge, 6-foot-long monsters and had to work frantically to create exact replicas of the slides. “I was afraid I wasn't going to finish in time,” he says, but wasn't afraid about getting caught. “I was really good,” he says, smiling.

Reached by phone at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y., Sultan says she has no recollection of Campello or, for that matter, the “Strictly Painting” show.

“It really annoys me — the elitist attitude at the top,” Campello says. “Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine-nine percent of the art world is very liberal except for the ‘public.’ The way they view the public, the way they serve the public, the way they dismiss the public.” He saw Sultan as threatening the discipline of painting with the same snobbery. When you have a background as diverse as his, Campello says, it hones your radar for false self-regard.

F. Lennox Campello came to this country from Cuba with his parents when he was 10. The family settled in Brooklyn, but he was restless, so he forged his father's signature and joined the Navy at 17. The military paid for him to major in art and math at the University of Washington in Seattle, and then he was off, stationed all over the globe but keeping up with his art all the while. He says he held an art show in Beirut and scribbled illustrations for Stars and Stripes newspaper.

The ribbon paintings have evolved since the McLean show. Now the paintings commemorate hypothetical conflicts: the Iranian Campaign Medal, Alaska Secession Pacification Medal, and the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force Medal for Syria.

Technically, he says, they've loosened back up and spilled out of the rigid pixilation back to brushstrokes and an emphasis on the painterly.

Standing in front of the black and white stripes of the Alaskan painting, Campello calls attention to a crinkly quality in the paint in the upper left-hand corner. He achieved the look by using a hair drier over the varnish, an approach forgers use to artificially age an object. Before hair dryers, forgers used urine to age statues or to soak canvases in, then baked them to defeat age tests.

The idea of memorializing wars yet to be fought by using historic artistic practice is satisfying in its way, but does he think the fat stripes of pigment could speak for themselves?

“I'll be brave enough to tell you no,” he says. “I'm convinced as an amateur historian I want to force people to read. It doesn't stand on its own, it stands with the story.”

The project started as an attempt to defend painting's honor. It's grown into work that, by his admission, doesn't stand as image alone. Perhaps, in a small way, the joke's on him. S

Lenny Campello's “The Color of Wars to Come” and Harold Edwards' “Iterations” run through Jan. 17 at Red Door Gallery, 1607 W. Main St. 358-0211.

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