The Fantastic Art of Leonard Greco
Leonard Greco loves medieval manuscripts, Pre-Raphaelite poetry, and Aztec gods. He identifies with the 19th century Symbolists and with their predecessors like Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch, c. 1450-1615) and Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828). And he paints with the intense passion and technical precision of Surrealists Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954) and Remedios Varo (Spanish, 1908-1963).
Like Bosch, Goya, and the Surrealists, Greco often draws on literary sources. His Goblin Market (2017) was inspired by Christina Rossetti’s epic poem about demonic creatures that seduce an innocent woman with the taste of forbidden fruit that almost causes her death. Rossetti’s goblins are traveling merchants, who sell their wares at regional markets. Greco’s are masked individuals with elaborate headgear and bejeweled clothing. One pushes a cart of magical fruit across a ground of densely patterned jacquard fabric. Most of his companions are painted in grisaille (a monochrome gray treatment that makes them appear sculptural) with brilliant gold highlights. The goblins are densely packed into a shallow, stage-like space. The theatricality of the composition is underscored by the profusion of decoration activating every surface in the painting.
Greco’s Reflections of a Harsh Superego is a large oval composition that appears to be an antique mirror. Reflected on its silvery surface is a haunting skeletal face. His features are horribly distorted, his skin a deathly gray. (No Dorian Gray here!) The oval frame of the mirror is surrounded by six enchanting dolls. Hand-sewn from canvas and thickly painted, they bend and fold, like mischievous imps cavorting around the Superego’s visage. The mirror and its ghostly reflection recall the potent mirrors of Narcissus and Snow White…which in turn evoke the dangerous power of images (or more precisely, the danger of being attached to false images.)
When Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in the early sixteenth century, they were so threatened by the native gods (whom the conquerors called demonios) that they destroyed every image they could find. As a result, we have very few depictions of the Aztec patron war god Huitzilopchtli. Notable exceptions are the representations of the god found in Early Colonial manuscripts written by Spanish friars like Diego Duran and Bernardino de Sahagun and illustrated by Aztec artists. Such Early Colonial depictions inspired Greco’s linocut Huitzilophtli. His Aztec god with hummingbird headdress is part of a series of linocuts representing chimerical figures, from the half-goat, half-demon Krampus to the Norse shape-shifter Loki. All of these figures–indeed, all of the figures Greco paints, prints, and sews–partake of liminal or threshold identities. All of them mix aspects of both the human and animal realms. As such, they are all what traditional thought labeled “monstrous.”
The word “monster” comes from the Latin term monstrum, which referred to an aberrant occurrence, something wrong in the natural order. Monster came to mean creatures who either physically or psychologically objectionable, that is, freaks of nature. American photographer Dianne Arbus (1923-1971) described some of her portrait subjects as “freaks.” She used the term to refer to “deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal.” Although the dominant culture tends to demean and exclude those deemed outside the “normal,” Arbus found a strange beauty in her “freaks” or monsters.
Leonard Greco finds strange beauty in his monsters, the beauty of postmodern identities. This beauty has to do with crossing boundaries and exploding conceptual categories. Many of Greco’s characters combine human and animal components. The Ancient Greeks considered such combinations monstrous evils. (Think of Medusa and the Centaurs.) In contrast, the Ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hindus–like the Ancient Aztecs–believed that portraying deities with both human and animal attributes gave them increased power. (Think of Horus, the Egyptian god with the falcon head; or Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess often portrayed with immense bird wings; or Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god.)
Greco’s characters have body types or facial features outside the accepted norm. Their behavior is often transgressive. And “Fairyland,” the title of his current exhibition evokes homosexuality, which even today is demeaned as “immoral” and an “aberration” by many religious fundamentalists. Such fundamentalists are often trapped in binary thought, believing that male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are fixed, absolute, and universal categories.
But, as French philosophers Helene Cixous and Jacques Derrida have argued, binaries need to be reconsidered. Binaries like male/female, straight/gay, culture/nature, and self/other are not absolutes, nor are they in constant conflict. Instead, they are connected points in infinite fields of possibility. To shed binary thinking is to begin the liberation from historical stereotypes.
Leonard Greco creates images that invite us to reconsider old, outmoded ideas. His beautiful monsters allow us to embrace the “other” as our “self.”
Betty Ann Brown, Ph.D.
Art historian, critic & curator