Finding My Religion

The Conversion of St.Paul on the Road to Damascus
2019
Oil on canvas
48 by 36 inches

I recently finished two new works, one a drawing which I made recently on the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15th), the other an oil painting of Paul’s epiphany on that road to Damascus so long ago. I’m becoming increasingly aware of spirit entering my life  ( I do not know what else to call it) and my work. It has been subtle, random spontaneous prayer, something I neglected since boyhood; sneaking into churches furtively and unnoticed ;  but most especially instances of incredible awareness, of a sense “rightness” at the most curious of moments. I don’t know what it is but I do know it is welcome and increasingly welcome in the studio as well. 

  I’ve always been drawn to sacred art, I collect it, I seek it out whenever I travel, David and I are drawn like moths to a flame whenever we encounter some beautiful chapel, church or cathedral. Yet I have resisted calling myself religious, and God forbid anyone calls me “spiritual”- milquetoast yoga clad , CBD ingesting, kale juicing  LA dilettantes come to mind.  But now my symbolist art is becoming increasingly sacred, and sacred in a decidedly Christian way. Not I hope in that pedantic , lock-step fundamentalist sort of way but in the best way, a very personal way, the way one hears and feels the spirit. No one else can depict those ineffable moments of presence but oneself and they cannot easily be explained or depicted, but art making and poetry are frequently very evocative and satisfying.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
August 15th 2019
Colored pencil on toned paper
24 by 18 inches

My interpretation of Paul on that road is at best quirky, perhaps too much so, too personally esoteric…but I must paint as I see it. Christ is front in center, in some strange pompous vehicle, wearing some odd pointed crown of thorns; poor Paul, mid-strangle of some hapless Believer, looking up in wonder and shame ; and as always , in the background and foreground , are we, the unenlightened, unable to witness the sacred in our everyday.

I say “we”, I mean “me”.

 

Detail: The Conversion of St.Paul on the Road to Damascus

I’ve ornamented this bearded fellow with Greenmen, primal gods, folk treasures and a Fool. Although seeking something beyond the realm of the ordinary, I wanted to acknowledge the sacred qualities of being of the world.

The Fool is all seekers, of which I count myself. Seeker Fools, Holy Fools, wether ready for it or not; latent or actively seeking or somewhere in between. I predict many Fools in new works to come.

Of religious art I was taken with what I felt a very British approach to the sacred on my recent holiday visit to the Tate Britain. There in the dizzying galleries devoted to all that is best in British art,I was struck by the sheer numbers of works depicting Christ, the Magdalene, Virgins here and there, and just an over all presence of spirit (Blake of course comes readily to mind).  But these works, unlike their counterparts issued  from the Church of Rome were highly personal, some oddly so, as cryptic and as wonderful as some newly discovered Gospel.

As an example I suggest Stanley Spencer’s monumental The Resurrection, Cookham. In this detail shot, Spencer himself, nude as our Lord made him, languidly awaits his Savior.

Detail: Stanley Spencer’s “The Resurrection, Cookham”, 1924-7

For a sense of  the scale of  this fantastic painting, this image, with Jacob Epstein’s strangely beautiful Virgin from The Visitation, 1926 in the foreground.

 

Perhaps being a Protestant nation, British artists were more inclined to “own” the Christian narrative in their work as they feel able  to interpret the gospels for themselves. I don’t know for certain of course but it was strikingly apparent that these works , of which there were many, expressed an inner life, richly experienced. 

This seems a long standing tradition, although theoretically familiar with John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents ( The Carpenter’s Shop), I hadn’t realized until close inspection how unorthodox a painting it  really is. Christ, so young, so fair, so in need of his mother, the tenderness she exhibits as she tends to a superficial wound, the precursor to the Wound. Blood drips upon his bare, grubby little feet, again a foretelling. The painting is astonishingly rich in symbolisms, details I hadn’t been aware of from reproductions. In truth I’ve never liked this painting much, that is until actually witnessing it ; too Protestant, I had foolishly thought, not properly “sacred”.

I no longer think that.

Detail: Millais’s “The Carpenter’s Shop” 1849-50

But for highly personal visions of the divine one returns to Blake.

William Blake
“The Body of Christ Born to the Tomb”
c.1799-1800

Increasingly I feel Blake to be the strangest, most influential and most  prescient artist. Although I don’t think that it was the case, I always sense that the work just rushed out of him, painting one might say  in the Tongue of Pentecost. I don’t think that was true, that he was in fact quite a deliberate artist, but it is a tender image of the man. 

Of Blake’s perennial influence, one cannot neglect Cecil Collins, and although from what I read he loathed to be compared to Blake, the influence of spirit is hard to overlook. Collins has become in his own right quite an influence to me. I feel a kinship to the work and to the man, I especially like this quote where he speaks of the Fool. It reverberates with a sense of rightness :

The saint, the artist, and the poet are all one in the Fool, in him they live, in him the poetic imagination of life lives.

Cecil Collins
“The Sleeping Fool”
1943
Tate Britain

Back to my own stabs at personal spirituality, I came upon this photo of early work,  from the early 80’s , back in those halcyon summer days of my youth,  spent on Deer Isle Maine painting very strange, frankly ugly paintings onto the most forlorn  cast off furniture I could find, which in turn was peddled to upstanding Boston Brahmans summering in Blue Hill ( a very respectable gallery gave me several solo shows, nearly all sold out- I was astonished). I haven’t a clue as to where this peculiar table ended up, I imagine once the buyer came to their senses they tossed it to the curb. Happily I have this crappy snapshot which provided compositional inspiration to my Assumption drawing above.

Assumption Sidetable
1984 (?)
The Conversion of St.Paul on the Road to Damascus
2019
Oil on canvas
48 by 36 inches

 

Sweating the Details

“I should never have made my success in life if I had been shy of taking pains, or if I had not bestowed upon the least thing I have ever undertaken exactly the same attention and care that I have bestowed upon the greatest.”

Charles Dickens

Detail of an unfinished work now nearing completion…hopefully.

I recently finished listening to an audio recording of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens is a favored studio companion, his intricate, well woven tales can keep me engaged for days on end. He was a master storyteller and when Curiosity Shop came to its conclusion, I marveled at the care and dedication to detail he lavished upon even the most seemingly insignificant innkeeper, scoundrel or parlormaid. It is a great treat to become so well acquainted  with all of his characters, the experience is so rich and gratifying.

Such attention to seemingly insignificant details is my delight at the easel as well. I am aware that a broader brush or  a simpler stroke might just as effectively convey a desired message, but it wouldn’t be fully my own, or frankly of any interest to me. I take great pleasure in works that are convoluted, those possessing complicated compositions with seemingly infinite opportunity to discover detail upon detail.  I recall the northern Gothic painters, where the doorknob of some distant castle sparkles as brightly and as prettily as some fair maiden’s jeweled bodice; where every tree is embroidered with countless , meticulously rendered leaves. Many find such works frankly too rich in detail, too time consuming to comprehend, not at all suited to our contemporary world’s blunt (brutal?) aesthetic and ever-increasingly limited attention span.

I however stay the course, trying as best as I can to stay personally true,  and  as Dickens stated, taking the pains necessary to develop the work fully to my satisfaction.  The following images are of works in progress, one a rather large oil painting, hopefully nearing completion, the second a work on paper. Both seem to be expanding in scope as each studio comes to a close. But I am increasingly confident that they will let me know when they are finished…fingers crossed, soon.

Detail of WIP
Detail of WIP, colored pencil, white charcoal, on toned paper.
Detail of WIP, one panel left…hopefully.
Working out details for an upcoming “Stuffed Painting”.
Detail of WIP; oil on canvas.

New work: The Temptations of St. Anthony of the Desert

My relentless fascination with the blessed anchorite continues:

Leonard Greco
“The Temptations of St. Anthony of the Desert”
2018
oil on panel
18 by 36 inches

My enthusiasm for this hermit continues to delight me, so much so, stumbling upon a friend’s FB feed , I found the perfect hermitage.

Dream hermitage.
Leonard Greco
“The Temptations of St. Anthony of the Desert”
2018
oil on panel
18 by 36 inches
detail, Herakles in tears from “The Temptations of St.Anthony of the Desert

 

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

 

Fairyland Continues

 My current body of work that I have placed under the encompassing umbrella of Fairyland is an ongoing project, transforming itself almost daily. Ultimately it will be a large and complicated installation project involving diverse disciplines: painting, fiber art, printmaking and possibly  some performance. A classic example of gesamtkunstwerk.  

Ultimately given full expression at my 2019 solo show at MOAH-Cedar in Lancaster CA.  I  also have a month long residency with Shoebox Projects in December where I will further examine this magical place I call the land of fairies.

 But in the meantime  I am submitting Fairyland for possible solo shows. The following is my latest submission, and let me tell you applying for residencies or submitting for solo shows is on par with the Harrowing of Hell. Shaken and now nervous, I know I’ve done my best. Rejections have become a part of my reality, but in my heart I know this could be a pretty nifty show.

The following is what I presented.

Wish me luck.

Fairyland

Grappling with ways in which to express “being-ness”, I find myself reaching beyond my usual studio practice of painting into diverse disciplines including fiber-art figures . The figures are fashioned by fully embracing the pre-conceived “sissy” element of this art. Thus exploring my identity as a queer and terrified man, the series validates a long suppressed self loathing.
“Fairyland” an ongoing project, bears a title once a slur, now declaring a message of empathy, pride, and hopefully, humor. Embracing the fairy has been empowering ; the art created expressing a spirit of furtive repression breaking free.

Detail from “Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego”.

 

The following is a “walk through” description of what I propose:

 

“One enters Fairyland through a swagged theatrical portal, embellished and festooned with luxurious passementerie, the ornaments fashioned from trashed rags, the “rich” cloth of stitched and patched recycled fabric, all evoking a glorious if tarnished sham splendor .

This initial dramatic entrance into the Wurdemann Room is not mere camp , it is a sincere appreciation for aesthetic visual redundancy, one that is deeply personal and I believe a trait familiar to the queer aesthetic, the need to elaborate, to further explain.

To offer alternative truths.

It is in the elaborations that I explore familiar cultural narratives through a queer prism, doing so in multiple mediums: stitched and painted fiber art , relief prints, book making, drawings, easel and wallpaintings .

Once entered, the visitor encounters a hushed dark room , it’s walls swaddled in lush fabric , faint chants heard muffled behind the plush. At the far end of the gallery an elaborate neo-baroque mirror hangs, confronting the pilgrim with a chilling memento mori. The mirror titled Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego is of mixed media and fiber arts and is flanked by near life sized fiber-art figures such as Daphne and Icarus which act as sentinels of life, death and transformation.

Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego
Daphne
Icarus

To ones right and left, floor to ceiling (faux) tapestries entitled Orpheus’ Lament and Eurydice’s Response (of painted and stitched un-stretched canvas), depict alternative tellings of the Orphic drama.

Preliminary sketch for “Eurydice’s Response”, faux tapestry.

As the Wurdemann gallery is set as a private salon/wunderkammer with approximately 12-15 pieces, various paintings such as the large scale oil paintings Goblin Market and Hadesville will be interspersed amongst the “tapestries”.

Goblin Market
Hadesville

In the center of the chamber, on an elaborately draped library table, one finds hand blocked , hand stitched books, opened for viewing. Further stitched and painted figurative ornaments also bedeck the table’s surface .

Sensory overload is the desired affect in this gesamtkunstwerk that I call Fairyland- this particular Fairy’s private retreat made public.”

“Fairyland”
Ave 50 Gallery, Los Angeles
July, 2017
Detail “Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego”.

 

 

Of Faeries & Daemons

Detail from “The Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego”
2017
Mixed media

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for me, I’m trying now, not very successfully, to collect myself.  Between the move into a new space, multiple shows and now an inferno has set upon the City of Angels, I find myself quite discombobulated. Now that I have a semblance of internet (thank you Hotspot, whatever the hell that is), I feel less adrift.

 To procrastinate, I’m enclosing a few images from recent shows, “Satan’s Ball” at Art Share LA and more recently, this last weekend’s “Fairyland”, my solo show at Ave. 50 Gallery.

“The Wodewose”
2017
Mixed media
Image by Stephen Levey

A pleasant surprise was meeting the photographer Stephen Levey who took some excellent images of my work. I was quite delighted to see how he captured the moodiness of my figures. 

“Adam, the Minotaur”
2016
Mixed media
Image by Stephen Levey

I’ve tried for some time to capture my first “Temptation of St. Anthony of the Desert”, Stephen, seemingly effortlessly, snapped a great image. 

‘The Temptation of St. Anthony of the Desert”
2013
oil on canvas
36 by 48 inches
Image by Stephen Levey

The preparation for the opening of “Fairyland” was daunting, with packing up the old studio, moving into the new and all the details that go into a transfer from one place to another, I was rattled. Particularly grateful to Dan Fernandez who handled my installation expertly.

Mr. Fernandez

In the end it all came together and the opening was just splendid…hot as Hadesville , but splendid.

The artist with “Goblin Market”
The artist with “The Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego”.
The artist with what matters most, his loving and supportive friends.

I was so touched by how many of my friends stopped in, in spite of a plethora of  competing openings, in spite of the gallery’s rather isolated situation and in spite of the terrible heat. In spite of that , the support was thrilling. Thank you my friends, friends I’ve known for awhile and to the new ones I’ve just met.

Art making is isolated work but it is the community one finds that encourages and delights. I’m pretty delighted at the moment…in spite of fierce Apollo.

With my dear friend Kristine Schomaker , founder of Shoebox PR; call her, really!

 

 

 

Final Post from Eagle Rock

Final days @ 1053 Colorado

As what had been a very delightful sanctuary becomes barren and littered with bubble wrap and pugs , I wanted to make one last post from my creative home of the last two years. Although eager to settle into larger digs, I will miss this place (particularly its excellent air-conditioning ). 

This is proving to be a busy moment in my life. The movers arrive this Saturday and that evening I have an opening , Satan’s Ball, a perennial favorite -I have five pieces in that show. I may be pooped after the move but looking forward to being part of the festivities at Art Share LA. Then my solo show Fairyland July 8th. Frantic, daunting, exciting.

I was delighted to be notified that my drawing The Rape of Our Mother had been accepted into the Brand 45 Annual National Exhibition of Works on Paper. I was particularly excited because the juror was Leslie Jones, Curator of Prints and Drawings at LACMA- my submissions were unmistakably drawings in that old fashioned way  and I having her validation was important to me.

“The Rape of Our Mother”
2016
colored pencil on paper

I had failed to mention that my painting Hadesville won 3rd Best of Exhibition at CEDARFEST 32, at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, Lancaster, CA.

I was beaming with a goofy grin.

3rd Best of Exhibition “for the artwork titled ‘Hadesville'”

The day after the award ceremony Facebook rather magically reminded me of what the painting looked like a year ago.

This “memory” popped up.

June 17, 2016
unfinished

And a year later:

Packing has produced some novel still lives that I am eager to figure into compositions for new paintings, this being the most successful :

Accidental Composition, June 27th 2017

I’m at the end of my packing , I receive the keys to the new studio tomorrow morning. Much more to do but very eager to get back to work, be it stitching, drawing or painting, perhaps a relief print of two as well.

Feeling rather festive and optimistic!