Embracing Identity

My surname is Greco, my paternal grandfather fiercely proud of our rich heritage; clearly my roots are Italian, but in all honesty I’ve only just begun to recognize and appreciate the impact my cultural patrimony has had on me,as an artist and in many ways as a gay man.

I was inspired to reflect upon this existentially while submitting to a group show exploring and celebrating the Italian diaspora. I am the offspring of Calabrians who fled the poverty of their region for the fabled bounty of the New World. Setting sail in the teens of the early 20th century, my great grandmother came armed with a cheap gilded ring set with blue glass (which I now treasure ) and a feisty spirit. Incredibly small people and brown as a nut, my great-grandparents were frequently met with bigotry and prejudice.

Yet they persevered, settling in Trenton N.J., they were embraced by fellow immigrants (many from Naples) in the Italian American enclave known as Chambersburg (colloquially known as the ‘Burg). It is there that they opened water-ice parlors, manned grocery markets and in the twenties, my grandfather, as a boy,  ran rum for the mob. Ultimately the family prospered enough to move to the suburbs, sadly leaving the cultural richness of the ‘Burg behind for the homogeneity of the NJ suburbs. My grandfather never felt like he quite fit in with his “white” neighbors, but the pride in his hard earned prosperity was palpable and difficult not to appreciate.

For me, as a sensitive queer boy, artist wanna-be, the suburbs were an aesthetic  hell. Cultural deserts where “Mediterranean” evoked cheap flocked wall coverings and abominations upon inky velvet graced many a family room. My  boyhood salvation was mass at the family church back in Chambersburg, Immaculate Conception, a 19th c. Gothic Revival pile, redolent in incense, ritual and gilt. It was heaven, and to this day I remember gazing up at its painted ceilings in wonder, and knowing one day, I too would be an artist. My grandfather assured me that was absolutely possible for Italians were especially gifted artists ( although he also insisted that the Irish were particularly gifted in depicting angelic hosts- where or how how he came to this opinion is something I still think about).

Link to images of Immaculate Conception: https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ho_display.cfm/874405 ; links to other wonderful Catholic churches in my hometown , which I posted a few years back: https://babylonbaroque.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/recquiscat-in-pace-sts-peters-and-paul-trenton-churches/

So now, in submitting to Italianitá, hosted by the Italian American Museum here in LA, I put to paper the influences my heritage has had on my art and my identity. This is what I came up with:

Leonard Greco
Artist Statement

As a child of Italian-American descent (my paternal great-grandparents arriving from Calabria in the early 20th c.),I was raised in the culturally impoverished suburbs of NJ, yet it was my Italian roots that nurtured my aesthetic and acted as a balm to my artistic soul. Be it the street theater of Feast Days, the Madonna paraded and joyously lauded, the Festival of Lights, or the gilded grandeur of my parish church, it is clear to me that these influences decided my fate to be an artist.
In my work I explore the extremes of human existence through the presentation of archetypal figures undergoing transformation and experiencing salvation, rebirth and enlightenment; not unlike the art of Rome, be it sacred or profane. My paintings are self-contained narratives concerned with universal themes—birth, life and death— that stem from my personal experiences and passions. These include my love of classical mythology, Roman Catholic saints, the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, as well as the commedia del arte , low brow erotica and Surrealism.
As a queer artist my work frequently reflects a sensuality not unfamiliar to Italian art and culture. In this work I am searching to find the divine in the everyday, to show that all life, in all its incarnations is indeed sacred and beautiful. The works are metaphors that explore human relationships and interactions from myriad points of view and ultimately are about my understanding of my place in an ever-changing world.

Seizing Sanctimonium
2016
oil on canvas

My oil painting Seizing Sanctimonium is an allegorical homage to personally well loved artists such as Mantegna and Poussin and also a psychological exploration of my own spiritual and existential angst. Employing Renaissance compositional techniques such as one point perspective and borrowing freely from the drama of the Baroque stage, my intention was to evoke the tensions that arise between powers. In this instance, the Roman Church here being confronted by the Old Gods. This tension is palpable in ancient cities such as Rome and Mexico City, where timeless allegiances are everywhere, the old gods literally arising from the earth. Attempts to integrate the old ways into the orthodoxy of Christian faith creates a tension that is complicated, painful yet often dazzlingly beautiful. As a gay man, a artist and a Roman Catholic these tensions are personal, familiar, and frequently painful; conflicted by dictates of the Church and personal truths (embodied here by the Old Gods), it is in my desire to express this pain and to synthesize the diverse elements of my being. It is my hope to create work in my own voice, my own purpose and my own understanding of beauty.

Hadesville
2016
oil on canvas

My oil painting Hadesville is yet another homage to works of art that have influenced and inspired me. In this instance the Hellmouth warnings found in late Medieval and early Renaissance churches. These fantastical works are frequently the most inventive, adventurous, not to mention humorous works of art found in Christendom. Mostly attributed to anonymous artists, they continue to beguile , I am not alone in my appreciation. My painting Hadesville recalls such works, employing universal elements such as the aforementioned Hellmouth and symbolism that is personally meaningful.
In addition to the High Medieval, I also nod to Dante and his Divine Comedy with my own oddly disconcerting guides found in the upper left portion of the composition. Navigating the complexities of life, spirituality, sensuality (and the Underworld) was enthusiastically explored by the Italian masters of quill and brush,my humble aim is to add to that conversation.

Daphne
2018
Mixed media/fiber art

Daphne is part of a new body of three dimensional work that I identify as Stuffed Paintings. These painted and stitched figures are intended to evoke the dramatic presence of Baroque theater and sculpture (most specifically, as in this case, Bernini). These pieces, Daphne included, frequently explore the power of transformation, sacrifice and redemption . Ovid’s Daphne,suffering divine injustice and paternal betrayal, ultimately finds “salvation” through metamorphosis (in her case, that quintessential symbol of Classical triumph and victory,the laurel bough).With that in mind, the theme of Daphne felt ripe for personal reinterpretation.
It is in this framework I wished to create my own response to Bernini’s ravishing marble masterpiece. In exploring the challenges presented in life, be it familial discord, conflicts with identity or romantic entanglements, my intention was to document the turmoil and anguish necessary to personal development. In so doing, I not only shift mediums from solid stone to pliant fabric, but I also swap gender, making this embroidered and painted allegory my own.

In closing, my grandparents.

Tommy & Mary (anchorbabies?)
2017
oil on panel
8 by 8inches

 

Lilith, the Mandrake

Lilith, the Mandrake
2018
Mixed media: acrylic painted canvas, recycled fabric, feathers, embroidery floss, poly fill.
6’6″h,6’6″w,4’0″w.

  Lilith (the Mandrake) was nostalgically inspired by memories of my own youthful desire and identity struggle in the reign of disco.

By incorporating discarded elements of sartorial seduction current to the period (late 70’s early 80’s),the ubiquitous  Izod shirts, which seemed mandatory for young gay men, the neon “New Wave” colors found at Fiorucci  (and elsewhere) and the general  “clone” aesthetic raging  in NYC at the time, I tried to playfully examine the entanglements that were ahead of me.

And boy, there were entanglements.

The Harrowing of Hell, a recurring passion

The Harrowing of Hell
2018
Sanguine pencil, white charcoal, toned paper
24 by 18 inches

The theme of the great Harrowing of Hell, that period in time in which the Church seems to hesitate a bit, unsure of what really happened, that time after Christ sheds the mortal coil and isn’t seen for a few  days. Where he is said to have descended into the Underworld as a triumphant New Adam and liberates lost and languishing souls- that, that moment , fascinates me.

It has for quite some time, as a youth I placed ink to paper in an attempt to imagine such a  mythic moment ( the use of pomegranates as a decorative motif, seemed at the time,  a brilliant allegory and  subtle reference to Eurydice)

Youthful stab at a subject too grand…(1980-81?)

As the first(and latest) image attests, the theme still beguiles. Having only recently listened to George Saunder’s astonishing Lincoln in the Bardo (thank you Audible, now I must actually read it). I have been taken with the in-between time of death, redemption and the ambiguous souls left floundering;  the Bardo as Saunders asserts. Death isn’t always with me in a dismal way, but it is endlessly fascinating. I don’t actually want to know for sure what the path ahead holds for me, but I am darn curious.

The first introduction to the theme of the Harrowing was Albrecht Dürer’s spectacular depiction of it (Dürer is a heartthrob figure for me in so many ways).

Albrecht Dürer
Descent into Limbo

One can easily see Dürer’s influence on my work, going back to my teens. Clearly I stole from the Master in this youthful depiction of the Fallen Adam.

Unfinished drawing of Adam and fallen Bishop of Rome.

What I had failed to comprehend was what was meant by Hell. In time I came to realize not so much the eternal fires of a wrathful God, but a waiting station, the  vague Limbo of my youthful Catholicism.

The theme has been explored countless times; the following, are a few favorites.

The ubiquitous follower of good old Bosch.
A lovely example from 1504.
14th century
Petites Heures de Jean de Berry
A gorgeous depiction of the Harrowung of Hell, only vaguely attributed as “Renaissance”. Lovely nonetheless.

My own inspiration was more random, less planned; in my last studio move, an accidental composition made itself available to me. I suspect I will returning to theme again. Perhaps next time Christ will be more triumphant, more muscular in spirit, less hesitant. Although, truth be told, hesitancy seems a reasonable stance. 

The Harrowing of Hell
2018
Sanguine pencil, white charcoal, toned paper
24 by 18 inches

 

Family Friendly

I’m very pleased that two of my favorite  and decidedly not “family friendly” paintings have been included in this exciting group show curated by the talented Gwen Freeman.

Show details follow:

“Family Friendly” is a loaded phrase for those who do not conform to the hetero-normative model–the paradigm often described as “normal,” “just regular,” or “traditional.”

This phrase, “family friendly” can be interpreted by the LGBTQ community as code for “not including me.”

But, of course, gay, lesbian, transgender, non-gendered, gender-fluid, cross-dressing and queer people are very much a part of families all around the world.

This exhibit seeks to explore that fact, and to celebrate a broader more inclusive definition of family.

PARTICIPATING ARTISTS:
Joanne Chase Matillo * Natalie Egnatchik * Michael Frey * Leonard Greco * Kerry Thorne

CURATOR:
Gwen Freeman

LOCATION:
The AAC Blue Wall Alcove @ Ave. 50 Studio
131 N. Avenue 50, Los Angeles, CA 90042

EXHIBITION DATES:
February 10 – March 3, 2018

OPENING RECEPTION:
Saturday, February 10, 2018, 7 -10pm

Herakles & Telephos
2015
watecolor on paper
12 by 9 inches
The Castration of Uranus
2015
watercolor on paper
11 by 14 inches

 

 

 

Memories of a Splendid Evening

Last evening’s reception for Embodied:St.Anthony & the Desert of Tears was gratifying in many ways . Most especially in the support shown by my wonderful friends and fellow artists . The art community in LA is a generous one , I am exceedingly grateful for that .

But also in where this residency has brought me , I feel as if I am on a landing , creatively speaking , and about to ascend with a stronger conviction and more focused intention.

I thank Kristine Schomaker and her ShoeboxProjects, which offered this residency to me . I also thank Kristine for these marvelous images . Amidst the hubbub I didn’t take one image . So again, thanks Kristine!

With that said , let the mayhem be fondly remembered.

I love this image of Kristine, really working my hat .

My friend , the excellent photographer Stephen Levey took these images , I particularly like the one with my talented friend Bibi Davidson and our demonic love child .

Our wonderful friend Jodi Bonassi , another great artist , was working the hat as well !

Always lovely to see my friend Randi

And miraculously , our dear Malka Nevidi , yet another amazing artist, arrived near closing . Thank goodness. But all good things must end , we’ve packed it all away , down to the crisp white walls , ready for new inspiration. Filled with much gratitude… and now, a head cold .

“Embodied”, my intention and some kind words

In the final week of my residency I’m quite literally tying up loose threads ; I’m also trying to gather my thoughts, my feelings and clarify my intentions.

The following is the result :

 

EMBODIED: ST. ANTHONY & THE DESERT OF TEARS

Leonard Greco

Shoebox Projects – Artist in Residence

 

Embodied:St.Anthony & the Desert Tears, my latest (ongoing) body of work, is inspired most significantly by Gustave Flaubert’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (1874). The richness of detail and illusion that Flaubert evokes almost suffocates the reader in its voluptuous beauty. Flaubert himself was inspired in great part by Brueghel’s own phantasmagoric depiction of the tormented hermit. I wish in some way to allude to that dizzying yet exhilarating experience.

As a young boy Flaubert witnessed a marionette performance of “The Mystery of St. Anthony”.  From that point on, “St. Anthony accompanied Flaubert for twenty-five or thirty years”, as the philosopher Michel Foucault has written. Flaubert returned to the anchorite time and again until completing the work in 1872.   This is not an easy read, dense, at times over-ripe, seemingly more chant than prose; Foucault describes the work as an “overcrowded bestiary” with “creatures of unnatural issue.”

It is this “overcrowded bestiary” I wish to evoke with the still evolving Embodied, wishing to populate the tableaux with a parade of bewildering, complex “creatures of unnatural issue”. These hybrid embodied beings represent not simply base impulses but our own deep struggle to live a fully expressed life.   For when I tackle such fraught topics as sin, temptation and redemption, I am looking beyond the typical biblically inspired admonition (such as Lust or the other Seven Deadlies). I am more interested in the quotidian, seemingly insignificant distractions that prevent us from embodying our truest selves. In essence, what interferes with your being authentic?  What is your demon? Who, what shadows your path?

I’m particularly interested in exploring how the tools of modernity – social media, the self-commodifaction through “branding” oneself, the pursuit of relevancy— all hinder full true self-expression, perhaps even censoring it or rendering it mute. Foucault describes Anthony’s temptations as “…false gods resembling the true God….” I argue that false gods lurk in the inky alleyways of a frenetic and rapacious contemporary society.

The mystic Thomas Merton in discussing the Desert Fathers insists, “they did not reject society with proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men”, but instead were seeking the fullest expression of their purpose. Throughout our lives we are given signs which point us (or call us) in the direction of our authentic purpose, so as Merton reminds us: “…whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe”.

I will do that “thing”, clumsily, distractingly, awkwardly, but like Anthony, sincerely and with purpose.

 In addition to my own words I was flattered by this generous review of my work by the art and culture writer Genie Davis . It certainly warms my heart .

Thank you Genie, Art and Cake and ShoeboxProjects.

https://artandcakela.com/2018/01/07/leonard-grecos-embodied-st-anthony-the-desert-of-tears-at-shoebox-projects/

 

 

Fonts, Themes & Filters!

I think I’ve developed quite an addiction to the myriad filters , texts and aesthetic options available on apps such as Phonto. As I try to promote my residency work and its reception next Saturday at ShoeboxProjects, I find myself distracted by the plethora of options .

Here is a sampling:

If you are in LA please try to attend , the location is in The Brewery at 660 S. Ave.21, unit 3, 90031.

If you can’t make that day , give a holler , I’ll be installing all next week and will be delighted to meet you there .

Wish me luck !