Lenny

Mera Rubell: 36 studios in 36 hours!

Background: As announced here:

“the Rubell Family Collection is one of the leading collections of contemporary art in the world. Started in 1964, soon after Don and Mera Rubell were married, the Rubell Family Collection operates as a non-profit organization based in Miami where it presents rotating, curated exhibitions and hosts a variety of educational and community outreach programs.

Mera Rubell will be one of eight esteemed curators selecting works for Cream, the WPA 2010 Art Auction Exhibition. Building upon the popular Experimental Video Series at the Rubells’ Capitol Skyline Hotel, Rubell has determined to see the work of as many DC-area artists as possible and select up to twelve to be included in the WPA exhibition and auction. Her visits to DC are typically 36 hours long, and she has devoted her next trip to this project.

For 36 Studios – Part 1, Mera Rubell and a team of curators and writers will conduct 36 studio visits over the course of 36 straight hours. Each studio visit will last approximately 15-20 minutes and will take place starting at 5:00am on Saturday, December 12 and continuing until 5:00pm on Sunday, December 13.”

Got it?

So as all of you should have done, I threw my name in the hat for this spectacular opportunity to show my artwork to one of the world’s leading art collectors, and the same person (me) who once missed a 160 million dollar lottery grand prize by one number, hit it this time and I, along with 35 other lucky DC area artists, was selected to be visited by “Mera Rubell and a team of curators and writers.”

To say that I was ecstatic is the understatement of the year. I was dumbfounded and left a little speechless for the second time this month. An opportunity like this doesn’t happen very often, if ever.

When I returned to Earth, to my horror I realized that… ahhh… I had no work to show Rubell.

All of my work is still in Miami, safely stored awaiting for it to be displayed again at the coming Miami International Art Fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 5-10 January 2010.

Best known art collector in the world is coming to my studio and I have zip to show her.

Effing Great…

The Grand Admiral of the Soviet Fleet, Sergei Gorshkov once stated that the “reason that the American Navy is so good in time of war is because war is chaos and the US Navy practices chaos everyday.”

Thus, as a former Naval officer I have been well trained in dealing with chaos and once my heart slowed down I sat down to consider my options.

Should I put together a binder full of available work in Miami and pass it to Ms. Rubell in the hope that she would agree to check them out once she returned to Miami?

Should I sit her in front of a large flat screen TV and flash her digital images of my available work?

Or should I lock myself in the studio and create as many new art pieces as possible before her visit on Sunday afternoon?

Usually the hardest and most difficult path to an answer is the solution, and I decided to lock myself in the studio and create new art.

As a new father, this is not easy, and I discussed it with my wife. With her support, I chose the last option.

I spent the rest of Thursday doing and finishing up all of my chores, many of which had piled up while I was in Florida the previous week. I went to bed around midnight on Thursday night, with my head buzzing with ideas.

By 3:30AM on Friday, I was up, essentially unable to sleep and ready to create some artwork. This being the digital age, before I entered the studio I logged onto Facebook and began Facebooking the events about to take place.

Nine hours later, after a dozen sketches and several discarded starts, I had finished my first new drawing, a large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna Lynch, known to the world as “Che” and perhaps the most iconic figure in modern history.


“Asere, Si o No?” 19″x48″ Charcoal on Paper
When I finished I had something special. The appropriated image of Che from a photograph by a Commie photographer somewhere (ironic that Communists always nationalize and appropriate private stuff, so I have no issues appropriating their imagery) is to the left in a very Christ-like pose. Behind him, a slogan or graffiti on the imperfect wall asks the question in Cuban slang: “Asere, Si o No?” which means “Friend, Yes or No? in Cuban street dialect and is meaningless to all other Spanish speaking peoples. The capital letters answer the question by spelling out ASESINO or assassin. This is the second version of this ASESINO concept.

It is now well into Friday. More Facebooking and by now friends and family are encouraging me. Art critic Kevin Mellema advices me that “Sleep is for the weak. 72 artist hours is like a week and a half of work for 9 to 5′ers…. Of course you do want to be awake and coherent when they show up on Sunday…”

The next time that I sit down to draw I hit a groove and deliver five new drawings in about four hours. I’m employing a lot of charcoal dust to cover large areas and create a minimalist drawing concept. “Superman flying naked and close to the ground in order to avoid NORAD radar” is such a drawing. We barely see the naked superhero, but we do see his elongated shadow on the road below. The lane dividers are just erased charcoal, now showing the not so pure white Arches paper underneath. I toy with the idea of rubbing more charcoal dust onto the drawing to create the impression of the car oil stains one always sees in the middle of the lanes. I abandon the idea; it is a pure and clean highway under the Man of Steel.


“Superman flying naked and close to the ground in order to avoid NORAD radar”” Charcoal on Paper. 20×24 inches.
“True Believer” and “Woman who thinks that the tattoo that she just got on her back reads ‘Bring Bush Back’” come out next. Both are very quick drawings and the first one is a highly worked drawing with an almost fanatical message. I’m not satisfied with the charcoal aspect of the dripping blood from the newly finished tattoo and so I bring out colored pencils and apply a subtle sense of color to the piece. This is rare for me.

Now there’s red blood dripping down her arm. The second piece is the opposite: a rough almost unfinished drawing with a harsh, funny message. It is inspired by a cartoon I saw once which showed a burly sailor’s back. A tattoo on his back reads: “Don’t tell this guy what this tattoo says, he thinks he has a battleship.”


“True Believer” 22 x 14 inches. Charcoal and Colored Pencils on Paper.


“Woman who thinks that the tattoo that she just got reads ‘Bring Bush Back’” Charcoal and Conte on Paper. 14″x10″
I had set aside a nice vertical piece of dark paper and “Fallen Angel” materializes on it as I work furiously. It is the most minimalist of the pieces and it is finished in less that 15 minutes from beginning to end.


“Fallen Angel.” Charcoal on Paper. 21 x 11 inches.
On the radio, the pundits are discussing Obama’s speech at Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. I take a break and do some more Facebooking and I come across Mary Coble’s profile picture on Facebook and it triggers an idea in my head. Coble and Nobel seem to align and “Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” is created. This is the second “Age of Obama” drawing that I’ve done. In the first, done while Obama was a candidate, the figure is canvas to a history of the candidate in the early days of the election. It is now in a private collection in Ireland.

In this second “Age of Obama” drawing, the figure is host to selected portions of the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.


“Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” Charcoal on Paper. 16×12 inches.
I want to have some coherence to the work that I want to show Rubell, and many of these pieces have a seminal beginning in my historical interest in the Picts. And so out comes a Pictish drawing.


“Pictish Woman” Charcoal on Paper. 14 x 9 inches.
The Pictish drawing is the one that worries me the most. It is almost fantasy in nature. Will Rubell understand my historical interest in the subject and how it is the seed to the more contemporary work?

I take a break as I am tapped out and on Saturday afternoon we all visit some open studios and drop by the Washington Glass School, Red Dirt and Flux Studios. Rubell has already been to her designated visits there and excited artists tell me about her and her entourage. I sense some disappointment, some hope and certainly a lot of excitement.

I begin to gather another aspect of the impact that this influential person’s tiring and superhuman effort (36 studios in 36 hours) is causing on the DC art scene. Even the Washington Post, well-known amongst DC area artists for its apathy and indifference towards the local visual art scene has sent the Post’s freelance art critic along, and she has overcome her ennui about the DC artists and galleries that she is tasked with covering and is following Rubell to some of the studio visits, but soon drops out.

I’m angsty about the whole thing and can’t wait to get back to my studio and create some more work. I want to make sure that I make an impact.

On the drive home I pass by at least three Vietnamese restaurants and wonder why all the Pho places have a number after it (such as PHO 95, PHO 301, etc.).

My head has been filled by my visit to the studios with a need to be “shocking” in order to stand out. I waste precious hours struggling with a shocking idea. I visualize a man crawling away into the horizon perspective. We see his body clearly from the back, his buttocks clear and white, and his penis dangling between his legs as he crawls away. A tattoo with an arrow points to his anus and letters instruct “Insert Penis Here.” Another tattoo on his penis states “Suck This.” His butt cheeks sport tattoos that say: “Spank Here.”

The tattoo on his back says “Pat here” and the tattoo on his feet soles says “Tickle here.”

The title would have been “Man with Directions” but it never came about. It just wasn’t me. I’m no Chris Offili, taking a schlocky short cut to shock in order to gather attention. I feel guilty enough as it is about the drawing of the woman with the Obama tattoo on her back.

Instead another Che Guevara drawing begins to emerge. Much smaller, almost the opposite of the first piece. For almost a whole day the drawing looks like this:

A long-haired Che is to the left of the drawing (where else), with a vast empty space to his right. Long hair years before the Beatles and hippies, aloof and alone as an adventurer in a foreign land so much different than his native Argentina.

That night I can’t sleep much between fighting a nagging cough acquired while in Miami and racing ideas about how to finish the drawing.

On Sunday I wake up, calm and ready for the visit. And the last drawing crystallizes suddenly.


Finalmente Denunciamos a el que traiciono al Che (Finally we denounce he who betrayed Che). 4 x 24 inches. Charcoal on paper
The Spanish words announce that “finally we denounce who betrayed Che.” The capital letters answer the statement: FIDEL. I now have two of these… the circle is complete and I am ready for Rubell. It is 9:00AM on Sunday and I get a phone call from the WPA’s Lisa Gold.

Is it OK if they come around noon instead of the originally scheduled time of 2PM? She asks. I will be either the last studio visited or the penultimate one.

I tell them that I am ready.

And then, on that Sunday, around noon or so, when the doorbell rang, as chance would have it, I was carrying my newborn soon, whom I call Little Junes (for little Junior, the poor kid) around.

I went and opened the door; Mera’s Rubell’s “36 studios in 36 hours” posse was at my door-step, the 36th studio of the grueling tour.

She was here at last. All through the last couple of days my email inbox had been buzzing with artists reporting what was happening during their studio visit. “I think I’m in! said one email, “But even if I’m not, I’m feeling pretty good about my artwork!” it finished.

“Mera Rubell..a total life force!!!! My studio still vibrating with her energy, dialogue, quick take on everything…..her bowler hat — ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ bowler hat. I haven’t felt such positive power in DC for so many years!!!!” shouted out another email from a very talented DC area artist.

And now she was in my house.

It all happened fast, but soon we were talking about the artwork on the wall, with one of the visitors commenting that she had some Sandra Ramos’ works in her collection. The photographer documenting the visit was meanwhile admiring the photographs of Cirenaica Moreira and asking about her.

The eyes and attention turned to Ramos as people looked around my first floor. Someone of the locals recognized an early Tim Tate sculpture, which I had acquired at his very first solo show.

Meanwhile the wife offered fresh coffee, which was accepted by the tired, bleary eyed group. Little Junes, of course, was a big hit with everyone. Someone poked him on the side and he let out a big grin. “Everyone in the Campello household is working this visit except me,” I thought to myself.

“So, who’s the artist in this house,” asked Ms. Rubell, looking at me and Alida.

“I am,” I responded, but quickly added that Alida also had a formidable arts background, after all the Professor studied art at Colgate, Corcoran and MICA and was in the graduate program in printmaking and photography at the Art Institute of Chicago before she decided to focus on special education.

Before I knew it, we were looking at the only piece of my artwork that hangs in my house: the 1981 collage of Frida Kahlo that I did while a student at the University of Washington. I almost panicked when I realized that we were discussing a 28-year-old piece of art done as a class assignment under Jacob Lawrence.

“Maybe we should get down to the studio and see the work that I have for you,” I said.

We went down to the basement and Ms. Rubell looked to a wall full of certificates, photos and framed paperwork.

“Who’s got all these degrees?” she asked, a little amazed. I laughed and explained that I was a former Naval officer and all that stuff is what we call in the Navy the “I love me wall.”

There, framed for all to see was my entire Naval career: ships, submarines, medals, certificates, photographs, Arctic Circle papers, Equator crossing certificates, Suez Canal certificates, etc.

She looked with interest at a photo of a massive Soviet Typhoon submarine, which I had taken from a British helicopter that I’d been riding at the time somewhere over the Kola Gulf. I identified the huge sub to her. “I was born in Russia,” she stated. None of us knew that. I told her that Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the US Nuclear Navy had also been born in Russia.

She thanked me for my service, told everyone that she had her Naturalized US citizen certificate framed and on her wall, and then we all entered the well-lit mess that I call my studio.

“Show me what you got,” she said, settling down on a stool.

And so I was in the position where I suspect every artist on this planet would love to be: Ubercollector Mera Rubell and a small entourage were in my studio, waiting for me to show them my art work.

But I am of Cuban ancestry, so rather than showing work right away, I started talking about it.

And because I am of Cuban ancestry, before I started to talk about the artwork, I talked about what led to the artwork.

I told them that when I found out on Thursday that I had been selected to be visited by Rubell, I was ecstatic and glowing with anticipation.

And then I told them that I had immediately realized that I had no current work to show them, because all of my work is in storage in Miami waiting to be shown at the Miami International Art Fair.

“Do you know about that fair?” I asked possibly the world’s leading art fair goer. She said yes.

“So I thought that maybe I could ask you to visit me at the fair and see the work.” I paused, and everyone looked a little alarmed, mostly me at seeing them a little alarmed.

“You have nothing to show us?” Someone asked.

“Yes, I do.” I answered. “Because what I decided to do when I realized that I had no work to show you, was to create as many drawings as I could between then and now. And so between Friday at 3:30 AM and this morning at 9:00 AM I created everything that you will see today.”

Rubell looked a little amazed. “You mean that you did all the work in the last 36 hours?” She asked.

I said yes.

“You see,” she turned to the entourage, suddenly filled with vigor and energy, “this is the first artist who crated new artwork just for the visit!”

“Ahhh…” I stammered a little embarrassed. “I had to! I had nothing to show you.” But I was inwardly feeling that things were going well now.

“What have you got to show me?” She said, the studio suddenly bristling with her energy. “This is a dynamo in human form,” I thought to myself.

And yet, I delayed a few precious moments more, and then really started talking about what drives my imagery.

I talked about how I had discovered the Picts in my childhood reading and then re-discovered them in Scotland when I lived in that breathtaking nation from 1989-1992.

I told them about the research that I had done as an amateur historian on them and their tattoos, and I showed them some examples of Pictish artwork that I had pinned to my studio wall.


In this photo by Lisa Gold, Rubell is looking at me describing the tattoo artwork of the ancient Picts, as I weave a artistic genetic line to my current work.

I described how a few years ago I had a show where it was all about Pictish art. And then I led the discussion, minutes gone by, to the trail of that artwork to my current work.

I’m a good talker, and I think that they were all interested in this historic genetic line that I was weaving. No one was yawning, and the room was still charged with electricity.

I explained how the tattoos married with my interest in narrative art, and art that tells a story or makes a point, backs up an agenda or delivers a social commentary.

And then I turned over the gigantic drawing of Che Guevara with the writing on the wall behind the Argentinean icon.

“Asere, Si o No?” 19″x48″ Charcoal on Paper
As I’ve described before, this is a huge charcoal drawing of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna Lynch. Che is to the left in a very Christ-like pose. behind him, a slogan or graffiti on the wall asks the question in Cuban slang: “Asere, Si o No?” which means “Friend, Yes or No? The capital letters answer the question by spelling out ASESINO or assasin. I explained all these Cuban nuances to the Spanish language and my agenda behind it.

“You did this in the last 36 hours?” Someone asked a little quizzical.

“You see!, You see!” beamed Rubell, this is what I’m all about!” she gestured at the piece as I discussed my historical affinity to Che Guevara, both as a hero to some and as a mass murderer and racist to others. Rubell noted that I had captured a strong sense of the zealous Maoist in his eyes and face.

“What else is there?”

The next few pieces went fast. With each I explained what the drawing was all about. I discussed the intimacy of drawing the viewer close. I discussed humor in art when I showed them the Superman drawing. I discussed being very tired and possibly hallucinating when I did the “Fuck Elections” Obama drawing. I discussed the nuance of words when I showed them the “Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” drawing.

“Is that Catherine Opie?” Asked Rubell when she looked at “True Believer.” I told her no (the model is actually a local Sunday School teacher). “She really looks like Catherine Opie!” she commented. Note to self: contact Catherine Opie and see what she thinks of the likeness.

I was in a groove, and I can’t remember why, but there was a lot of laughter all the time. I think that I asked them if they were laughing so much because they were delirious from lack of sleep. They exploded in laughter at that. I laughed too, because I was indeed super tired from the last 36 hours, but I was also feeling quite on track.

I could sense that Rubell really liked my drawings, but that she also liked the reason for them, the “why I draw this” idea. Somewhere in there I talked about conceptual art and how often the idea is more interesting than the final product and people agreed with me.

More talking, more good vibes.

“Awright,” she says, “can you step out for a minute?”

I leave them and go upstairs. “How’s it going?” asks my wife.

“I think it’s going great,” I answer as a series of raucous laughter blasts emanate from the basement. My wife, Little Junes and I look at each other and wait.

An eternity goes by before I am called down to the basement.

“We were wondering,” says Rubell with a devilish look in her eyes - this woman is not tired, at least not now, after a grueling 36 hours marathon of studio visits; that much is clear to the most casual observer.

“We were wondering if…” she pauses, “considering that you were a Naval intelligence officer… if you had done some intelligence preparations ahead of time and had all these drawings in your flat files and just pulled them out just before we came?”

I could see a glint of devilishness in her eyes and I wasn’t really worried that they thought that was the case, and so I easily denied the issue. Nothing like having the truth on your side.

“Raise your right hand!” ordered Rubell, her Russian-ness suddenly coming to the front. I did.

Next I was made to swear that all the work had been created in the last 36 hours, while Jennie Yang recorded the event with her camera. For a moment there I flashed back to my days in the Navy, with the myriads of re-enlistments and ceremonies where oaths are taken.

But I was in a good place, and my tired bones and eyes were testament to the truth of my creation of these works in the last 36 hours. The swearing was easy, with the relaxing backing of the truth.

We all filed out of the studio. On the way out she looked at a handmade Valentine Day’s card from my wife that I pinned by the door. “This is a love nest,” she stated, “another love nest…”

“We’ll let you know soon,” said the WPA’s Lisa Gold, efficient and precise to the last minute, and reading my mind as it wondered “Am I in?”

We got upstairs, and started to say goodbyes… it all felt good. And at this point I was just glad that this electrical woman had decided to work her tuchus off and charge up the artists of the DC area.

“So what do you think of the Washington art scene?” asked Mera as she prepared to leave the house.

She turned and looked at me, and I began to answer her.

If you are a reader of this blog you already know the answer that that immense question, and I began to answer her. I told her how DC area artists were very lucky in many aspects and that (in the opinion of a world traveler and frequent flyer with an interest in art scenes) this region had one of the most vibrant and best art scenes anywhere in the world. I also told her about how diverse the artwork and artists were, and I told her about Art-o-Matic as a magnet for gathering artistic energy. I told her about the wealth of exhibiting opportunities that abound in our region. I told her about the many artists’ groups that deliver support and community and advice to local artists. I told her about the strong sense of artistic energy that soaks into everything around the nation’s capital.

She asked me about the local museums and I began to peel the scab from the other side of the coin, the negative side of the DC art scene; the side that outsiders see; the side that many focus on; the side that symbiots feed upon.

I then submitted my opinion, based on my observations and discussions with artists and dealers over the years, about the lack of attention that local museum curators give to our area’s artists.

I suggested that it was easier for a local museum curator to take a cab to Dulles to catch a flight to Berlin to go see the work of an emerging artist than to catch a cab to Georgetown to do the same. I offered that this was perhaps because our museums saw themselves as “national” or “international” museums rather than a city museum and thus ignored their own back garden.

I also offered that the new Katzen Arts Center was a refreshing change from that and that it was the only local museum to have a connection to the local art scene. Several entourage voices agreed with me and explained to Mera about Jack Rasmussen’s (Katzen Director and Curator) deep DC area roots.

She asked me about the Washington Post and about specific writers there. “This is an informed person beyond one’s wildest guess,” I thought to myself as I unloaded with all cannons on the local newspaper.

I described for her how the Post has decimated its visual arts coverage in the last few years. She asks me informed questions about specific writers. I realize that this is a woman who already knows more about many of the inside parts of the DC art scene than most of the writers tasked with writing about it.

I give her my opinions and back it with specific events: the critic who once wrote about a print without realizing that it was a copy of a well-known Picasso painting - I give it as an example of that critic’s suspicious art history background; or the writer whose snarky writing has improved over the years, but still betrays the writer’s scant training in writing about art. I talk about the writer who got caught discussing a show that he’d never been to; I mention the ones that got fired because of ethical issues. I mention the art critic who covers New York galleries but seldom DC galleries.

DC is a small town and everyone knows about all that happens here. And you reap what you sow and right now some pens filled with apathy and ennui and snarkyness are reaping the caustic results of my opinions. I’m back in the groove on a different, if favorite subject of mine, and I’ve got the ears of one of the world’s most influential art persons.

I’m talking too fast, but I know that she’s absorbing it all. She asks me about a specific critic and wants to know what I think of the critic’s writing. I give her an honest answer, which comes out somewhat more positive than I would have expected.

“Is that writer the best one to write about what goes on in DC and about DC artists?” comes the question, at least I hear it that way.

“No,” I answer very quickly.

I predict her next question when she asks, “then who?”

I give her a name, and I am pleased that several voices in her entourage, agree with me immediately.

“Then why isn’t that writer covering this event?” she asks of them, not me.

Someone explains about the writer recusing from covering the event because of a relationship with one of the artists. “That’s stupid,” she opines, “the critic could have just recused from covering that artist.” Afterwards, when I was discussing this with a friend, I was told that this wasn’t the case and that the critic in question didn’t recuse himself.

I keep to myself how in DC it is a certain impossibility for writers and critics not to have some sort of relationship with some of the artists they cover.

Someone adds that the writer in question is the only one who really has a finger on the pulse of DC area artists.

She soaks it all in, but I suspect that she may be asking questions to which she already knows the answer.

They leave and I’m on Cloud 9 and I play the Beatles’ White Album with a smile on my face.

This electric person is going to do wonders for DC artists and erase decades of neglect from our press and from our museums… Helter Skelter baby!

Update: Rubell picked the “Age of Obama” piece for the Katzen Museum. At the auction the piece received furious multiple bids and sold for 170% higher than the high estimate!

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5 Comments »

  1. December 24, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    claudia olivos Said,

    Felicitaciones Lenny!
    Very interesting and entertaining post…continue to enjoy the experience for all those of us artists whose name did not get pulled out of the hat!

    Claudia & Sergio Olivos

  2. January 14, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    Discount Oil Paintings Said,

    Great Post..very inspiring experience.

  3. February 16, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    Jane Sauer Said,

    I enjoyed becoming educated about your fascinating art work and read this blog with equal enjoyment. You are also an excellent writer. Please write the next chapter for all of us out here who are having vicarious pleasure in your studio visit.

  4. February 16, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

    Vanessa Campello Said,

    This is an artist’s dream!!! I felt like I was in the room, the way u described things. Right now Im thinking how cool my dad really is. There is something more youthful and current in these peices that Ive never seen in ur earlier work. Im excited, proud and amazed at what u have accomplished in life and the fact that u have only just begun! Love u and can’t wait to see what happens next. ps…i want a cuban char peice for my house. Im going to rent the new release of Che with benecio del toro…i’ve been wanting to for a while. xoxo,
    -Vanessa Campello

  5. May 28, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    Hayabusa Gurl Said,

    Nice blog. I just bookmarked you on my bloglines.
    Sent from my iPhone 4G

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