Opening tonight at 33 Contemporary Gallery at the Zhou B Center in Chicago is an exhibition of graffiti style paintings by Mario Gonzalez Jr. Also opening tonight at the Zhou B Center main gallery is a group exhibition featuring artwork by a group of former and contemporary Chicago graffiti artists, titled HAS BEENS AND WANNABES that was curated by Gonzalez. I was fortunate to be able to preview the show yesterday when I stopped in the art center to say hello to Sergio Gomez, Director/Curator of 33 Contemporary. Both exhibits open tonight, Friday, January 18 at 7pm and run through February 9, 2013. http://www.33collective.com
Mario was very enthusiastic about sharing details about his new body of work that is in tonight’s show. Two large abstract paintings flanked the entryway hall of the Zhou B Center, but the rest of Mario’s work was still in his studio when I visited. Mario commented that he was showing paintings made with a limited palette of four colors (black, white, silver, and gold) as a tribute to how graffiti art was originally made. He is kicking it “old school” in this show.
Gonzalez explained that although his lines and strokes may appear to be random or a type of patterning, each mark had a specific meaning. At one point during the conversation, he grabbed a black pen and walked over to the wall in his studio and started marking directly onto the wall. He did this to demonstrate how his signature ZORE was created, evolved and was evident in all his paintings. Each mark has a purpose. A meaning. We talked about the evolution of graffiti art in America and Chicago and his art. It was one of the best studio visits I have had in a long time. I was intrigued.
I couldn’t get Mario’s art out of my head. I have been thinking about the paintings and what they represent all day. Why couldn’t I get it out of my head? What does it represent? Why do I feel compelled to write about it?
Traditional graffiti writing/art has been primarily created by inner city poor and minority cultures for at least a half of the 20th century. As far as I know at this point, graffiti started during WWII with a lone tagger, “Kilroy”. Graffiti hit an all time high in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s in cities around America. Then it disappeared from the urban landscape. Why?
Graffiti was banned in Chicago, New York City and other major metropolitan areas for nearly twenty years as part of a push to clean up the city’s image. By erasing all evidence of this population that might represent gangs or violence, real estate values soared as graffiti artists were arrested. City officials imposed strict restrictions outlawing the sale of spray paints, certain types of lettering, and even created special tactical policing units to keep trains and buildings graffiti free. The artist’s retaliated by tagging and painting more surfaces. Police enforcement waged on. The war on graffiti waged on.
That is, until now. In a recent turn of events, the City of Chicago has come to embrace these urban artists. The Chicago Cultural Center has invited Mario and other Chicago graffiti artists to participate in what is part of a citywide exhibition celebrating the art of graffiti. How things change…(New York City has yet to lift any bans or restrictions on graffiti style art at this point.)
One can argue that it all comes down to the almighty dollar, that is, paying for space. Billboard ads and posters line the interior of trains, stations and buildings. I have seen an entire Metra train painted as the Target brand. Corporations such as US Cellular, Sprint, Verizon, and H&M tag and cover every imaginable surface in the city. In a strange twist of events, I believe that by allowing advertisers to tag public spaces, they inadvertently reopened the door for graffiti artists that had once been pad locked, dead bolted and nailed shut. I don’t know why they changed the law in Chicago, but I am glad they did.
I have one more thought on this subject. I think it is important to understand why graffiti was banned in the first place so that we can learn from the past and not repeat it. Ultimately, people don’t fear graffiti, they fear what it represents.
I recommend that you not miss these two exhibits.