What are Lenny Campello’s obsessions? Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo, Lilith, Batman, tattooed Picts and mountain-bound Neanderthals. Indeed, to look at the work of this immigrant artist — a veteran, a family man, an encrypter of ancient runes and modern codes — is to race down the rabbit trails of a curious creative mind, never knowing who or what will turn up.
“I was born in Cuba and came here as a small child. My parents were Cuban refugees,” said Campello, whose dad fought in the revolution and ended up in a concentration camp before being released by Amnesty International. “I was raised in Brooklyn, always doing artwork since I was a child. Then I joined the Navy.”
Despite acing the New York Regents Examinations and getting an art scholarship to Columbia University, the 17-year-old “didn’t think I was old enough for college. Back then, the slogan was ‘Join the Navy, see the world.’”
So he did, enrolling in a commissioning program that brought him from East New York to Seattle, Washington — on the Navy’s dime, and subject to the Navy’s decision on what he would study at the University of Washington. “I liked it,” said Campello. “I ended up getting a double (bachelor’s) degree, one in mathematics and one in art. I didn’t study math because I liked it. I did it because I was told to!”
He did all right, taking an officer’s commission in 1981 and working on encryption for the U.S. Navy while continuing to do his artwork, getting cartoons published in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. “Then I retired from the Navy in 1997,” he said, adding that he used to “do a lot of outdoor art shows in the Navy. I consider that what fine-tuned some of my techniques, selling artwork at the Pike Place Market in Seattle — where they throw the fish.”
It was a good place to people-watch, he said, and before he sold art pieces, he often would “encrypt” them with little drawings or markings on the back. “I consider that part of my education; it trained me in talking to people about art, and how people saw art.”
Beauty, he learned, was most definitely in the eye of the beholder, and everything he created was up for sale: he was the immigrant son of a longshoreman, after all, from a family who’d left Cuba with nothing. “I have never been one of those artists who creates a piece of artwork and falls in love with it and doesn’t want to sell it,” he declared. “I break away; in fact, in my house, I have one very large piece of art, the only thing I kept from my art school days.” While studying collage at the University of Washington under Jacob Lawrence, the celebrated “dynamic cubism” artist whose work depicted Harlem and the Great Migration, Campello remembers Lawrence evaluating the back-and-white collage he had turned in and “saying something along the lines of, ‘It’s not bad, but it needs color — something red.’
“I was so incensed, I took a brush with red paint and threw it.”
Lawrence was not impressed. Campello did what he could to get the red out and pass the class (he did) and the pair “kind of became friends. And that collage I still have.”
While he hasn’t kept his work over the years, Campello has kept ideas and themes to which he returns frequently — which is one way of explaining why Campello’s show at the Stone Tower Gallery in Glen Echo Park is called “More Obsessions: Thoughts and Things That Keep Living in My Head.” It focuses on ideas that the 63-year-old Potomac artist cannot seem to quash, subjects he wants to interpret again and again.
Subjects like his own heritage: Galician, Sicilian and Scottish — as his full name, Florencio Lennox Campello, implies — and the deeply embedded racism he perceived even as his European ancestors assimilated in the Americas. Like the unexamined facets of topics that interested him, from class and migration in the United States, to the Cuban civil war, to the fabled (and heavily tattooed) Picts of ancient Scotland who captured his imagination in his youth and to whom he applied his Navy encryption skills as well as his art skills, visiting standing stones in Scotland and sketching their art and alphabet.
He has examined insular communities from the Galician Massif to the Hasid in Brooklyn, incorporated the Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo into his work (just before a movie about her life took the world by storm) and depicted Che Guevera, the controversial, and revolutionary, physician, author, activist, guerrilla leader and diplomat who, Campello labeled somewhat dismissively in his show as “T-shirt man” because of his unlikely pop-icon status. Fantasy, reality, romanticism and realism — Campello centers his art deeply in context, whether it’s special lighting, revealing code or multimedia interactive experience.
“The main piece in this show is, at least for me, my up-to-date culmination of the incorporation of technology,” he said. “What you see is the back of a woman in a museum, looking at two pieces of artwork on the wall — every five seconds a new portrait pops up — famous artists, politicians— and hidden in the middle of the piece is a spy camera, so as you approach the work, you staring at it becomes part of that portrait gallery. You now are the artwork.”
Gradually he said, the piece called “Your Portrait in a Gallery of Portraits” picks up more and more images, not just of famous people but of viewers looking at the piece, and sometimes even posing for pictures of themselves looking at themselves — capturing a selfie within a selfie.
“These are things that have always fascinated me,” said Campello. “Think about this: If you put this artwork in the world — distribute it, give it away, people buy it — when you’re gone, you have left a footprint behind.”
“More Obsessions: Thoughts and Things That Keep Living in My Head,” featuring work by F. Lennox Campello, runs through July 28 at Stone Tower Gallery, Glen Echo Park, 7300 Macarthur Blvd, Glen Echo. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free. Call 301-634-2222 or visit www.glenechopark.org.