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"F. Lennox Campello: Pictish Nation Drawings"
Ancient Isolation
Imagining Scotland’s scary, mysterious Picts
At the Fraser Gallery Georgetown to February 12, 2004
By Joanna Shaw-Eagle
© Washington Times
Saturday, January 10, 2004.
Reprinted with permission from the Washington Times

Imagine wild Scottish men covered with tattoos bringing Roman soldiers to their knees as they build Hadrian’s Wall for protection. Picture savage Scottish women covered with snakes, boars and bulls terrifying an invading army that represented the greatest empire in the world in the second century.

Sometimes the imagination has a force that fleshes out history and makes forgotten facts come alive.

That’s exactly what artist F. Lennox “Lenny” Campello has done with the almost-lost stories of the Pictish peoples. He’s brought the naked, proto-historic Picts back to life in a new Fraser Gallery exhibit, “Pictish Nation: Drawings Inspired by a Dark Ages People.” Although the images are based on Mr. Campello’s historical research, they’re also romanticized interpretations of what these little-documented people may have looked like.

In the show on display at Mr. Campello’s own Georgetown gallery, the artist illuminates this obscure corner of history with black charcoal drawings sketched on gleaming white paper. Each one if a gem, suffused with the artist’s’ passion for these peoples.

To express the Pict’s isolation from other early Scottish settlers, the artist most often uses single, naked figures set in empty spaces. Sometimes, he crowds them into narrow vertical or horizontal formats to increase the feeling of loneliness.

In other drawings, such as “Pictish Virgin (Clan of the Asp),” Mr. Campello moves from portraying full bodies to focusing on a single Pictish face. He covers her with fierce symbols, similar to those adorning the subject of “unmarried Pictish Warrior (House of the Asp).”

Mr. Campello explains that it was customary to incise iron needles into the flesh. “There are more tattoos in ‘Unmarried Pictish Warrior,’ and it looks as if the designs were incised deeper than in the ‘Virgin.’” The former’s warrior is portrayed with a shaven head and top knot as shown in a design from the Pictish standing stones that still dot the Scottish countryside.

“Finding our anything about the Picts is a real challenge, as only the stones and a few isolated descriptions in Latin by Roman writers tell us about these mysterious peoples,” says Mr. Campello, who’s writing a book on the ancient tribe.

In walking through the exhibit, visitors must realize that Mr. Campello wears two hats here: He’s both historian and artist. While his hypotheses about the Picts are most interesting, it is his expressive use of charcoal pencils that carries the show.

With “Unmarried Pictish Warrior,” the artist chose to use the charcoal roughly to show the unformed character of the young man. Mr. Campello pulled the charcoal of the empty space at left both with the pencil and his fingers to give the fighter a rugged, vigorous persona. He let lots of white paper support show through.

He lightened this approach in the aforementioned “Pictish Virgin (Clan of the Asp)” by using the white of the support as background, using a blending tool to combine the blacks and whites for shaded grays and finishing off the details with the sharpened point of the charcoal pencil.

The artist tell visitors that the matrilineal Picts had divided themselves into houses, clans and kingdoms and were probably a Celtic people who migrated north from what is now Spain and Portugal. Mr. Campello here imagines that the “Virgin” came from the snake clan, and he decorated her with a writing snake, a “Pictish beast” on her right cheek and a broken spear on the left.

When Mr. Campello blends the charcoal for a velvety black effect, he’s at his best. The artist says he builds and blends many layers of the charcoal for the deep blacks he wants.

He effectively displays three of these black-toned drawings – “Calgacus (The Swordsman).” “Pictish Woman (Royal House of the Dolphin)” and “Pictish Warrior (Whale and Horse Royal Houses)” – in a corner of the gallery that enhances the drama of their formats and diminutive sizes.

In both “Calgacus” and “Pictish Woman,” he squeezes the figures into tight, vertically thrusting shapes. The dramatically shaded male and female seem to step out of the shadows and into the abyss of the deep shadows behind.

Mr. Campello shows here the theatrical potential latent in intensely black tones and compression. He further dramatizes “Pictish Warrior” by pushing a muscular male figure to the far right of the horizontal picture.

The artist achieves his best work in the mush larger “Pictish Man” and “Unmarried Pictish Woman (Royal House of the Asp)” by exploiting the inherent theatricality of asymmetrical compositions that he began in the smaller works. He exposes large sections of the more rough watercolor paper he used here to convey the isolation and loneliness he ascribes to the Pictish people.

Mr. Campello clearly demonstrates in this exceptional exhibit that he has the imagination to create both gripping images and extraordinary stories. His passion for the Picts, which first seized him as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, NY, is now an obsession that should benefit both historians and lovers of art.

Joanna Shaw-Eagle

© Copyright 2004 Washington Times