photo: courtesy of Juan Angel Chavez
The artwork of Juan Angel Chavez is all over Chicago. From the "Hopes and Dreams" mosaic-mural in the tunnel that connects the Red Line to the Orange/Green Line at Roosevelt station to the "Vida Simple" mural at the Damen Blue Line station to works in schools and neighborhoods across the city, Chavez is a public art god.
But you don't have to stand in the snow to get a long look at his work, as he exhibited in the MCA's 12x12 series in 2003 and has been featured in many group shows here and around the country. But on the heels of a recent show of his drawings at the new street art space, 32nd and Urban gallery, Chavez has moved on to more personal territory, and is currently preparing for his first large solo show, to be held at the Hyde Park Art Center this April. I recently caught up with this 35 year-old artist and Uptown native in his expansive loft-style studio in Bridgeport.
What are you planning for your solo show at the Hyde Park Art Center this April?
I'm building a multi layer, multi-directional, large-scale speaker project. It will be a room 25 feet in length and 10 feet in height. It will include a stage where bands and musicians can play. It's a sculpture that can sound. The idea is to create multi-collaborative experiences between musicians and the visual arts. As is the case with a lot of my work, the [art] will be made out of found materials. I've collected about 210 street cones which will be used in the piece. I really like the ones that have been run over a million times and shaven off. I could find someone to fabricate them, but that's not the point.
Why do you collect objects?
There is a certain look of things that I like to maintain. It has to do with the personality of the object, the history behind it. I have a hard time using newer materials. They seem too pristine to me, too modern. To me they have the same character as a condo building. All the history is gone. I like using materials that reveal themselves to me in their patina, materials that seem like something has happened to them.
How has living in Chicago affected your development as an artist?
That's easy. I wouldn't be an artist if I wasn't living in Chicago. I grew up in a very small town in Mexico. I came here when I was 13. Before we moved here I never thought about being an artist. I really just wanted to have a wife, kids and 500 cattle to raise. When my parents brought me here it took a little while to adjust. My mom found ways to involve me in situations where I could use my talent...I found art that way.
Which of your public projects has the most meaning to you?
photo: courtesy of the CTA
The one I completed last fall... through the Chicago Public Art Group. The project called for creating a positive, reflective depiction of the community and changing the perspective of this Islamic center in it.
The building is a health clinic that's open to anyone in the community but it's also a Muslim community center. Since you can't use figures in Islamic art it was challenging. I created patterns out of protective elements in the city—fences, door gate motifs, elements from churches in the area. I also used mirrors as a reflection of the people [in the community] and as symbols of water drops...We also collected materials from community members as a way to involve them and used those objects in a mosaic portion of the piece. [This mural, "Reflections of Good," can be found at 63rd and Fairfield, one block east of California.]
Where do you go in Chicago to get inspired?
I hardly ever go to the museums and I hardly ever go to galleries. Most of my inspiration comes from every day life. I think it's important to be connected to the organic existence. So much art nowadays is made like machines. To me art needs to be connected to something that is natural, handmade.
Which public artworks in Chicago inspire you?
JC: I enjoy Cloud Gate in Millennium Park quite a lot. I really appreciate the meaning of that piece and the concept of it. I'm also a big fan of bad graffiti at any underpass. I appreciate the roughness of it. I really like old signage, especially when it's absurd. There's a sign at Leavitt and 23rd St. that says "school supplies" and it shows a gallon of milk, sausage links, and ice cream. It's great, absurd and deliberate.
So much is happening for you this year, do you feel that this is "your time?"
I used to feel like I didn't know what my artwork was about. This year I feel I really have connected with my work, with the reasons why I am doing my work. This solo show at the Hyde Park Art Center will allow me to do the work that I have wanted to do for a long time.