Artist Leonard Greco is something special. A decorative muralist and painter for over 25 years, Greco also have his own blog, https://boondocksbabylon.com, which tells the story behind his works and inspiration for same. His paintings are powerful, haunting, often including religious or mythic imagery in settings that evoke surreal icons. In short, his work is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, fusing generations of disparate cultures and art. Along with his paintings, drawings, prints, and puppet figures make up Greco’s full oeuvre.
The work is startling and compelling, both in its use of color and its story telling style. Greco says he is exploring narrative figurative painting, frequently using archetypal figures. He also has a secondary objective: “to explore the extremes of human existence, most notably birth and death.”
He has other themes that appear throughout his works as well, of transformation, salvation, and re-birth. Drawn to the narratives of early peoples, he’s inspired by the Mayan creation myth and Popol Vuh’s tales of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. This Meso-American mythos is restructured and reflected through the artist’s own experiences and interests in the Italian Renaissance and Roman Catholic saints, the surrealism of English-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington, and Ghosticism, among others. Greco’s own dreams prove an equally compelling landscape from which the artist draws.
His love of narrative depictions in the midst of these varied influences takes on universal themes, and a universal visual vocabulary, which the self-taught artist describes as “Life and death, mortality, morality, and most importantly, inner knowledge, gnosis.”
The artist’s narrative is also intensely personal, so that the refined surrealist images also take on an aspect of reality – real life as observed through the prism of a dream.
Greco’s “Jonah,” oil on panel, is a dark, surging, seething painting, with the green whale against whom Jonah triumphs floating in a turbulent grey sea. The whale has a head disproportionately huge – and human. A God-like head parallels the whale’s, looking down from the sky. A turreted bridge is in the background; a strange monument on which Jonah stands, a pedestal with the name Jonah upon it, in the foreground. Dark but translucent beams of light spill down from the sky. Jonah, his body blue, his face masked, looks up toward God, his hand pointing to the whale. This Jonah, unlike earlier painted incarnations such as those by Pieter Lastman, or Frederik van Valkenborch, is no pale creature fleeing the monsters jaws. He is no circumspectly robed elderly prophet, praying as he emerges in Jan Brueghel’s stormy sea.
No, this Jonah has emerged with his own strength. Jonah may have spent three days and nights in the belly of the beast, swallowed by both the whale and his futile attempt to avoid a mission from above, but the experience has not broken him. The Jonah Greco depicts may not have seen the error of his ways, may have fought his own way from the beast rather than being saved by an act of God. Is Jonah’s mask an attempt to still flee God’s will? In this raw and tumultuous world, Jonah’s figure is powerful, even if his face and motives remain hidden.
Deeply visceral is “Self Portrait of the Artist as a Flea,” a recent pencil and watercolor on paper, a paper doll of sorts that can be made to move through the judicious use of brads and string. Drawn in lavender, yellow, and white, it is the artist’s head on the body of a flea, but one which features abundant frontal nudity – except when covered by the artist with a ripe green fig leaf to render the work acceptable to social media. There is so much to be said about this piece, which in Greco’s words uses nudity and the body of a flea both unabashedly against “the bigots and the nasty folks who hate us, particularly important after the Orlando massacre. Queers have been treated like vermin for so very long, by fashioning myself as a flea I embrace what they find so vile.” The work has the quality of a fairy tale image, in part due to the colors chosen, in part due to the anthropomorphic flea, whose head shape resembles a jester’s hat. The fast, tiny, hard to destroy flea, a creature which though reviled, remains hardy, one who has been made to dance, to leap, to claim it’s own “flea-ness,” seems a triumphant image, as well as a humorous one. It’s a recognition of self, an acceptance, a dare to the world to accept, too. There is both anger and joy in that flea, and pride, in its careful, detailed rendering.
The artist’s 2015 watercolor on paper, “The Castration of Uranus” depicts the rather brutal outcome of son Titan Cronus’ attack with a stone sickle on his brute of a father. Greco uses this image to translate his own rage and inability to perform such an act on his own cruel father. In the painting, the green, monstrous beast-man, complete with images of the siblings he devoured in his distended belly, is castrated by his pale and sinewy son, blood pouring in a muscular wound from the gaping hole in Uranus’ genitalia. A pale woman, the moon behind her head, stands in blank observation. The twinning of the myth and Greco’s own experience creates a painting that is as alive as it is apocryphal. Particularly compelling is the vitality in Titan Cronus’ muscles, his life gained, his body about to spring forward into a future with fear vanquished.
Each of these works is a reimagining – of a Biblical story, a Greek myth, family violence, societal roles and values. Seamlessly blending the surreal here, the underlying narrative story there, adding brush strokes of irony and wisdom to his perfectly detailed images, Greco writes a new kind of artistic story, which like that self-portrait as a flea, itself contains joy and anger, pathos and triumph. The stakes are high, the world is strange. And art and artist go on.
Greco recently exhibited at the 2016 Second Annual Mask Art Show in Venice, but has shown throughout the Southland. Until a new show is announced, follow the artist’s blog for a look into his art and his mind.