15 rue du Page, 1050 Bruxelles
Tuesday to Saturday

16.05.2023 | 18.06.2023
10am to 6pm

Exhibition Essay:

Flower Boys

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


Exhibition Details