Ni aqui ni alla, 2023, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 225cm x 195cm
Los Historiantes, 2019, Studio Lenca
Alquimia - Studio Lenca
Text by Maria Brito
Jose Campos’ artistic monicker Studio Lenca pays homage to both his ancestors, the indigenous Lenca or “jaguar people” of his native El Salvador and to a “studio” where he moves across disciplines. Studio Lenca fled his country at the age of five in the 1980s to escape the violent civil war that had claimed more than 80,000 lives in El Salvador.
Crossing the Tijuana border from Mexico to the United States by land with his mom has been one of the most impactful experiences of his life and one that has profoundly influenced the direction of his practice.
Living as an undocumented immigrant in the Mission area of San Francisco afforded Lenca the possibility of a strange freedom: on the one hand, undocumented aliens are nonexistent; on the other hand, being able to move around in a big city without the threats and perils of a civil war felt liberating.
By the time he was 13, Lenca had asked a dance studio in his neighborhood if he could join the lessons for free, which they readily accepted. The freedom of movement and the encouragement from teachers to lean into his identity proved cathartic and alchemical. Something had forever changed in him.
Dance was the door that introduced Lenca to art. He danced on tour in other territories, even as far as England, where he is now established as a British citizen and where he received two art degrees.
For his first solo show in Spain, Campos reflects on the history of Andalucía and the commonalities that tie the region with his origins.
The word “Alquimia” (or “Alchemy” in English), comes from the Arabic Alkimia. The al- is the Arabic definite article, “the” and kimya meant the search for the philosopher's stone or the elixir of life. This concept entered Europe via Arabic Spain, which is where Finca Cortesin Gallery is located.
Alchemy was the “chemistry” of the Middle Ages and early modern times, involving both occult and natural philosophy as well as practical chemistry and metallurgy. After the 1600s, “Alquimia” became the pursuit of the transmutation of baser metals into gold and the search for the universal solvent and the panacea.
Like this alchemical transmutation, the figures represented in Lenca’s work are thriving in a difficult situation, trying to make something out of nothing. Much in the same way that Lenca has conducted his life and artistic practice.
In Studio Lenca’s paintings for this exhibition, the figures are dressed in saturated colors that remind us of the hues of the South of Spain, always sporting hats and claiming space and attention. They must be seen. They are either running or staring back at you with confidence. The patterns are alive and in motion, they connect us in our humanity and are inspired by the Hispano-Moresque wares introduced by the Spanish Moors around the year 711.
Emerging victorious from a precarious situation has been Studio Lenca’s alchemical superpower, which is imbued in his work. Hope, resilience, and joy are present for all of us to reflect upon and transcend.
Cine Metro, 2023, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 225cm x 195cm
The men sat in the living room. The women sat in the kitchen. I arranged flowers.
Installation, 2022, Studio Lenca
Studio Lenca by Andrew Salgado
The first thing I notice about El Salvadorian artist Lenca is his jumper, which is black and decorated with a simple floral motif; it looks homemade. I want one of those jumpers, I think to myself.
Jose Campos, who prefers the mononym Lenca (or frequently Studio Lenca), welcomes me to his studio in the new Tracey Emin Foundation in Margate, Kent. Lenca is one of the Founding Members, which means that by the time I arrive, he is comfortably working in a self-contained studio surrounded by other working young artists (as well as an influx of students to arrive in a week's time) who will receive visits from a host of tutors selected from persons actively working within the art world: Russell Tovey, Kenny Schacter, Jennifer Higgie, Xavier Hufkins, and of course, Emin herself.
(I should establish a short proviso: I am aware of Lenca's work only cursorily; this is mostly done on purpose. I want to engage with his studio and process and paintings much in the same way that I read books - avoiding synopses or blurbs. I want to 'go in dark'. I want to experience things and make my own judgements without bias or preconceived notion. Yes, I have a vague idea of his M.O., but otherwise these limitations are intentional.)
Among the many vibrant works that populate his light-filled, corner studio is one featuring a pair of his trademark characters, wide-eyed and thick-lipped, their bodies indistinguishably overlapped, whose wide-brimmed sombreros decorate a reclaimed work in a repainted vintage frame. "They break through the border," he says, a bit coyly, a bit self-aware. To be fair, it took me a moment: these characters are breaking through borders. They are farmers, performers, ballerinas, refugees, guerilla warriors, and also vulnerable, wide-eyed boys, celebrators of queer masquerade, caught midway between confinement within their restricting mise-en-scene while simultaneously celebrating the cacophony around them. Flowers burst from the canvas. There's a metaphor (or three) present, I think.
Lenca's figures inhabit many roles, just as Lenca himself inhabits some. As a visitor to his studio (and similarly, a viewer of his works,) one begins to understand how this character or archetype becomes a metonym for many different guises - and one through whom Lenca tells a very personal story. (In English, we might say Lenca wears many hats but I fear that pun is much too conspicuous given the gravitas underlying these works.) To a certain extent, this recurrent figure is a doppelganger; certainly a stranger or foreigner, inasmuch as this persona reflects Lenca's own biography, and throughout the works I immediately sense a longing, a buoyancy - literally: there is a sense that these figures are searching for their footing. Many seem airborne, floating, weightless - it's easy to imagine their toes en pointe, ticking the gallery floorboards.
Having fled El Salvador with his mother after the civil war in the late 1980s, Lenca grew up an 'illegal alien' in San Francisco, (something about that term sounding ugly, in desperate want of quotation marks,) where his mother worked as a cleaner. "Where are you from? Like, inside." I ask. I am aware this is a tricky question. I am aware that Lenca comes from a mixed cultural upbringing and that such questions - while difficult to define - are inherent in the soul of the work. Often, they are crucial to our understanding, because these are questions that can change our reading of a painting. He's not American, he states he feels little connection to those years. He's El Salvadorian, and now, weirdly, also British. I shake my head approvingly, I too understand this 'paradox of being' being myself of mixed Latino heritage (but failing to lay claim by not 'looking the part' ... so to speak.) This is an in-between-ness that foreigners understand. Further, both Lenca and I have lived in the UK for over 15 years, both in possession of British 'citizenship'. He confirms that the concept of 'being British' always seems somehow out of reach, like a self-aware joke.
As queer people, we understand that feeling of in-between-ness all too well.
Lenca, who began painting only a few years ago after working for some time as a photographer, (and sculptor, and - as a quick visit to his website reveals - a capable writer) shows me photographs of El Salvadorian native dress he has saved on his iPhone. The costumes are ornate and embellished, not unlike the spirit of his paintings, where polka-dots and palm fronds (or are they birds, or war-planes?) create camouflage-like patterns across the picture plane. But there is also a stark reduction of forms (I am reminded of Haring, for their simplicity but also for this feeling of reverberation) in which the figures subvert their politicized framework in favour of this weightlessness. They are joyous and candy-coloured. Looking across the studio is to visually ingest a veritable Pride Flag.
The conversation segues into who you were as a child (with the accompaniment of a neighbouring artist whose childhood spent in the hospital now determines the overarching premise of her paintings) and how who we were as kids becomes integral to 'the work we make today'. As viewers we see how the ghost of Lenca's former self informs these works. A mantel (or floral print oilcloth) he has vigorously rubbed with bleach has erased a pattern of pineapples and bananas. "I'm using the materials that my mother used as a cleaner to make money to support us," he says, "that destroyed her health."
It must be around this time that Lenca becomes emotional, revealing he did, in fact, train as a dancer as a child - and whether it was the panoply of flowers that blossom over a figure or the weightlessness of another that seems to hover, mid-pirouette in space, it becomes gradually more and more apparent to me that these really are all placeholders for Lenca himself, spiritual decoys, maybe, wherein this is sort of a performative exploration and reclamation of any multitude of struggles and triumphs the artist has had. But they function in a much larger sense. Lenca, whose debut exhibition with Edji Gallery, entitled Cutting Through, will also spend time in and within the gallery space; the result of which is the literal manifest of those painted flowers made visible within the gallery space.
"Home was a binary space." Men outside, watching football. Women inside, cooking, cleaning. I also understand the sheer panic that entails these binary roles, (in Canada, we played hockey: God knows I'm yet to welcome a snowfall.) The installation: The men sat in the living room. The women sat in the kitchen. I arranged flowers. speaks to those liminal spaces, like a crack in the pavement, where - given enough sunlight and patience - something might flourish.
To see the excess in Cutting Through is, in a sense, a reiteration of these figures and their ability to inhabit multiple spaces, appearances, guises, and meanings. I am reminded of an old essay I loved once upon a time* that discussed characteristics of revolutionary film that used familiar techniques to subvert expectation. These were films that appealed to wider audiences by - at first - not appearing to challenge the status quo, (ie, work that is counter-cultural doesn't necessarily have to appear heavy, dark, angry, or rigid. Form defies content, that sort of thing,) and I think that might be Lenca's greatest triumph, that his revolution can (at least) present itself as joyous, celebratory, bright, while retaining a multitude of complex social, political, and deeply personal issues.
Prior to leaving, my focus returns to Lenca's floral top: "You made your jumper, didn't you?"
Of course he did.
*Comolli & Narboni
Hermanos, 2023, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 150cm x 120cm.jpg
‘I’m becoming my own home.’ 2023
In the centre of Grand Place Brussels, surrounded by guild houses, city hall and tourists taking selfies we see Blonde dancing to techno on his headphones. The video is part of Studio Lenca and Blonde’s collaboration during a residency in the city. During which, their shared experiences of displacement from El Salvador opened up a wider dialogue around belonging, difference and queer identities.
The work is an exploration of the normative behaviour we expect in public and private, at home or as a guest. As Blonde dances he defies the formality of the space and makes it his own. It feels as though a transgression has occurred where all parties suddenly feel ‘displaced’ and rules have been broken.
Whilst Blonde dances aggressively to techno on his headphones, his surroundings, a place constructed to demonstrate colonial power are defied by the artist’s energy and imagination. The gilded opulence and splendour replaced by Blonde’s presence. To the beat of his techno, Blonde dances in a liminal space, not at home in El Salvador or in the postcard image of the city but unapologetically at his own rave.
The title of the work comes from a conversation Blonde had with Studio Lenca where he disclosed that since he’s arrived in Belgium, he feels he is becoming his own home.
Cine Metro, 2023, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 225cm x 195cm