Redefine, Re-imagine, Recycle
Written by Benjamin Ortiz Photos Mauricio Rubio
Latino visual artists in Chicago are turning their aesthetic concerns over to the environment we all inhabit.
These three artists, in particular, envision and expand notions of environmental themes that connect with both typical and unusual ideas about urban Latino ecology. Whether their themes concern balancing natural with human-made space, seeing art in a wider context of biological and planetary processes, or digging into a spiritual heritage to pay respect to Mother Earth, these Chicago Latino artists are making us look deeper into the environment that we might take for granted from within our skyscraper valleys and vistas.
CHASING THE SUN
Paola Cabal remembers returning to Bogotá in the late 1990s, after growing up in the United States from age 3. Newly elected President Andres Pastrana was attempting to end the decades-long civil war there among the various insurgencies. But, she recalls, “nobody had a sense of nation, a sense of country.” She came away from the experience feeling more “torn apart” than any sense of unity, and that has informed her artistic practices ever since.
Creating site-specific installations, Cabal calls her works “interventions” because she does not believe in pure invention, especially since what’s already there is much more interesting to her, from the spatial context to the audience.
“What I try to do is point up the strangeness of painting,” Cabal, 33, says, referring to the classical idea of creating monuments to perpetuate things. “I like to juxtapose the still, static thing with the real context of ‘always change.’” In the end, she says, “somebody moving through space is ultimately the thing that activates the piece.”
“Shadowtracing,” a piece she did for her bachelor’s degree, was the skeletal winter painting of a denuded tree against the wall of a not-for-profit organization she noticed while going to and from school. She thought first about doing a mural, but then decided to fill out the streetlight shadow. Once the leaves grew back, the shadow effect seemed to fulfill the natural promise of rebirth across the wall.
“Here Tomorrow,” the piece for her master’s thesis, traced patterns of sunlight throughout the day across a gallery space. With no methodology worked out, she ran around with an assistant every 15 minutes all day, tracing patterns. Later, she went back and filled in the traces with white spray paint to look like sunlight. Without trying to, she fooled some audiences into thinking they saw real, natural light.
She has created variations on this theme and tried to imagine natural light in cavernous spaces, also painting sun patterns across others’ works and charting nighttime lighting and reflections. She always accommodates her work and approach to the environment at hand, whether it’s a gallery or a public space.
“One thing that I haven’t done yet that I would like to do is analemma — the pattern that’s made by the declension and ascension of the sun over the course of the year,” she says, relishing the eventual product that will be not only natural but also gorgeous. “It’s beautiful, because the shape that it makes — if you do it right the same day every month, every two weeks if you’re really religious about it — it makes a figure-eight.”
SPIRITUALITY MEETS RECYCLING
Ricardo Santos Hernández calls himself “Consumer Man,” admitting that he’s just as caught up in wasteful materialism as anybody else.
In an essay of the same title, he bemoans the Cermak Road smokestacks spewing “a continuous vaporous smoke” that he sees from his third-floor studio in Pilsen’s A.P.O. building on 18th Street, as well as “the smoldering steel mills and refineries in Gary and Hammond.” To him, these are symbols of environmental racism and a shorter lifespan for the working class.
“I seek to paint these troubling landscapes to negotiate with my tormented heart,” says the artist, who turns 52 on April 3, describing his artistic practice almost in Catholic terms of sin and expiation. Even so, he’s not optimistic about salvation: “I see a strong disconnection between Latinos and the environment … It is really sad, because if you have a disconnect, your soul is also not grounded.”
Hernández sees himself grounded by the desert of his upbringing in Nogales, Arizona. “My dad is indio. He’s from Sonora, a Yaqui Indian, and we’ve always had this idea to walk in the desert,” he says. “I don’t consider myself an individual who practices or follows my traditions, but there was always this blessing and fulfillment from being in the desert.”
Those expansive deserts seem a far cry from Pilsen’s landscape of cramped signage, neon and tenements. Among oxygenating plants and plastic water bottles in his studio space, a decommissioned artillery shell from Army surplus sits atop a dais like a lethal quinceañera cake. Various paintings on display or in the works depict a massive fish kill that Hernández witnessed when he came to Chicago in 1993 to attend the School of the Art Institute.
“Even though Chicago’s very dynamic, it’s also very contaminated, very industrial,” he says.
Playing with found objects and collage materials from magazines, Hernández works through the Latino pop-culture notion of rascuachismo — a funky aesthetic of “making do” with minimal resources. [Rascuache has several meanings, ranging from poor and penniless to kitsch bordering on vulgar.]
Influenced by the work of Chicago muralist Marcos Raya, he also references the typical cultural iconography, such as La Virgen de Guadalupe and Mexican wrestlers, that one finds across mural walls. Thus, his paintings seem at first glance to reflect a recognizable U.S. Latino popular aesthetic, but with a sense of rascuache-as-recycling.
“Rascuache has been elevated to a scholarly and fashionable thing, but it’s really about making ends meet and not being wasteful,” he says. “It’s always been the realm of the disadvantaged, the one who will not make it or is always at the end of the totem pole.”
RE-IMAGINED URBAN SPACE
From atop a skateboard, Juan Angel Chávez might look at the city a bit differently than somebody just waiting for the bus. “What is a bench to somebody is not a bench,” he explains. “It was never a bench to me.”
Kinetically re-using sidewalks, steps and objects for his own jollies rather than what they were meant for, has clued him into new ways of seeing what’s right in front of him, affording the same meditative experience he gets from hanging out in abandoned buildings and scavenging for castoffs in hardy post-industrial ecosystems. “Walk in the old factories, and they’re completely decayed,” he says, “and plants are growing on the roof, and moss is growing on the walls, and you see that nature is beginning to take over again.”
An elemental part of his artistic practice involves working with found objects and creatively tapping into their “personality,” as he calls it. “They’re a part of us — they have a history,” Chávez, 37, says of materials that bear the aura of human use and interaction.
Through these pieces, he aims for an effect that is immediate, humble and unpretentious. Influenced by public art, Chávez worked on murals around town while interning at the National Museum of Mexican Art. But he grew more interested in the act of creating a mural in a community than in the product itself. “I started losing interest when I [realized I] wasn’t really interested in the outcome of the pieces as much as what was happening at the moment,” he says.
Taking cues from public interaction on mural projects, the McKinley Park resident began creating guerrilla-style street installations with found objects. His work from the past five years combines “large community spaces, structures and architecture.” For example, his “Speaker Project” (an “interactive sound structure”) from 2007 was as big as a two-car garage.
Local bands performed inside it at the Hyde Park Art Center, while audiences enjoyed both music and art space. “It’s not only [just about] playing inside an object or a sculpture — it’s actually creating this experience,” he says of his goal.
Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, Chávez considers himself from neither here nor there, and despite strong familial influences, he doesn’t consider his work “cultural.” “I can’t even call it Latino, because that’s too much of a loaded word,” he says. “But I think resourcefulness, in terms of materials and objects, is something that I learned from people who have to live that way. I think that is an international thing and cross-cultural. I can’t say it’s Latino at all.”
Likewise, “I don’t consider my work eco-friendly,” he says. “I’m not doing this because I’m trying to save the Earth necessarily — I’m doing it because it connects me to nature, the processes of decaying nature, rebirthing, re-growth and the wild side of existence.”