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Jacob Lawrence may have been one of the 20th century’s finest figurative painters, but to F. Lennox Campello, “he was a pain in the ass.”
At Georgetown’s Fraser Gallery, Campello—who studied art under Lawrence at the University of Washington in Seattle—gestures at an ’80s-vintage collage he executed in one class, erupting in laughter as he recalls a signature Lawrence quirk: “Everything had to have some red in it. So I took a paintbrush and flung some red at it—asshole student! It took me forever to clean it.”
Rescued now from that impromptu spattering of scarlet, the bold, unibrowed visage of Frida Kahlo gazes defiantly from the monochromatic newspaper collage—one of hundreds of depictions of the “Champagne Communist Mexican virago” Campello has made since a 1975 visit to Mexico City. It was on that trip that the 19-year-old Campello, on leave from the U.S. Navy and on vacation with his Cuban-emigre parents, saw Kahlo’s self-portrait Two Fridas. “It was love, or more like witchcraft, at first sight,” he writes in an essay introducing his exhibition of selected depictions of Kahlo from the past 27 years. “This large, spectacular painting swallowed my visual senses.”
Four subsequent years of art school didn’t cure Campello’s Fridamania. Assigned to paint in the styles of Pollock and the Washington Color School, he’d sketch a small portrait of his icon on the canvas, cover it with cardboard, and paint right over it, removing the cardboard after the assignment was graded.
Not that his is an unhealthy obsession: “I’ve never been infatuated” with Kahlo, Campello says. Nor does he believe that Kahlo, who’s best-known for self-portraits, was fixated on herself. Health problems kept her confined for extended periods, he notes, and she had a mirror hung over her bed. So, “like most artists, she painted what was near her.”
It’s Kahlo’s haunting appearance, along with her self-creation as a “painter of pain,” that appeals to Campello. “I always thought I had a talent for portraiture,” he says, “but I was never interested in doing portraits, except for two or three key faces.” In one drawing in the Fraser show, Kahlo’s black eyes stare out from the face of Marilyn Monroe. In another, done after the death of Elvis Presley, the King’s face gazes from Kahlo’s breast like a Sacred Heart.
Campello’s works are more than one-liners, though. They’re also explorations of one of Campello’s pet topics: race. In Las Siete Fridas (The Seven Fridas), he’s envisaged Kahlo as Nordic, Arab, African, punk, Native American, Vulcan, and Beatle. The drawing was inspired by the 1980 census, the first to offer a complex menu of ethnicities for each American’s self-identification. “This was my way of poking fun at the census and our governmental need to put labels on people,” Campello explains on a nearby card. Las Siete Fridas was recently acquired by Seeds of Peace, an organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding.
In a similar vein, Campello was “really bothered by…the whole history of” Julie Taymor’s recent film about Kahlo’s life. “When Madonna first optioned the story, some Mexican-Americans complained because she wasn’t Hispanic. Then Jennifer Lopez was supposed to do it, and then I understand that they complained because they didn’t want just any Hispanic actress, but a Mexican actress. But Kahlo’s father was a German Jew, and her mother was half Spanish and half Mexican Indian. And although Salma Hayek, who got the role, was born and raised in Mexico, I am told that her father is of Middle Eastern origin. So in the end, it didn’t make a difference the true ethnicity of the actress—but I am sure that there are still some small-minded, ignorant people who resent [that] Hayek got the part and not another Mexican actress with a name ending in a vowel.”
In the wake of that kind of fuss, he says, “Frida Kahlo must be laughing her ass off in heaven or in hell or wherever she is.” —Pamela Murray Winters
“Passion for Frida: 27 Years of Frida Kahlo Artwork” is on view to Wednesday, Jan. 15, at Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW. For more information, call (202)298-6450.