An unassuming entryway hastily painted in two distinct shades of green couldn’t be better camouflaged along Laflin Street, except for the computer printout firmly duct-taped to the door, reading Open Today. Not untypical of Chicago’s apartment gallery scene, it’s the sort of place that flies under the radar of anyone who’s not seeking it out, and hidden behind a featureless brick façade Antena gallery remains the definition of underground. And after a year-and-a-half-long hiatus, one might expect that Antena’s loyal following of longtime Pilsenites may have forgotten their favorite spot for emerging art and artists, though any newcomer venturing into the space was quickly greeted by a sizeable group conversing in the gallery’s foyer.The entryway also happens to serve as a spacious living room, bedroom, and kitchen of gallery director Miguel Cortez, who has been occupying the space for the past eight years as both a resident and curator. Conversations around a table featuring two requisite bottles of wine and an exhibition checklist drifted between friendly critique, vows of congratulations, and lamentations over how the Pilsen neighborhood has changed in recent years—all of which serve as a perfect preface to the work of Alberto Aguilar which fills the large room beyond a 10 foot tall partition.
Courtesy of Antena
Aguilar’s trademark butcher paper and tempera paint pair well with the DIY aesthetic that has been carefully cultivated at Antena. As the kind of place that has no qualms about hanging work behind a furnace pipe, and certainly makes no apologies for the chronically (and beautifully) flaking ceiling paint, it is hard to not check preconceptions about ‘fine craft’ at the door. His work responds in kind with large quick brush swipes, which draw their inspiration as much from sign painting as art historical cannon, as well as still-visible pencil marks he uses to plot his composition. Collectively titled Propaganda Familiar, the work draws from a vernacular that can be found in any carneceria window in Pilsen, and not just in the sense that Aguilar is speaking in both English and Spanish.
Taking cues from a line of artists like Wool, Kruger, and Rosen, Aguilar’s approach is to skip the semiotic foreplay and get down to business, addressing the viewer directly with an eagerness usually reserved for ad copy. Assertations of “HEY YOU! YEAH YOU!” are designed to confront with a sense of displaced urgency, while others like “FUN ERA RIO” take on drastically different tonalities depending on what language we are reading in. Within the walls of Antena, text gets blown up to a massive scale, reflected along architectural axis, and doubled alongside itself, all in an effort to exert itself in our physical space.
Though what makes Propaganda Familiar unique is how it goes beyond the physical environment of the reader, and into their political space. Figuratively, in the sense that precepts about our own identity are called into question, but also literally as the work occupies a half dozen locations scattered throughout the neighborhood. This site specificity and political potency are just as important to the curator, Miguel Cortez, who was happy to sit down with me to discuss some of his motivations behind the show.
Courtesy of Antena
Moving from Little Village in in ’96 and making a name for himself as an artist in the local collective Polvo since then, Cortez has lived in the area all his life and is keenly aware of the precarious geography that Antena occupies. Trendy enough to draw art viewers from around the city, but still far enough west to remain distinct from the more recent onslaught of SAIC grads who most often buy their double lattes on Halstead, Laflin street is subject to all of the fears that worm their way into many local conversations surrounding gentrification. Cortez himself even catches his share of flak, drawing the ire of those like UIC’s John Betancur, who’s been known to denounce the evils of “fancy abstract art” which he fears may displace murals of vaqueros and the Virgin Mary, that are more “representative of the community.”1
It is not a clear-cut issue for Cortez, who comments “In one way, we want to showcase art in a neighborhood, but then all these other factors come into play. Realtors are coming in, more artists are coming in, professional people are coming in. So they take advantage and take over the buildings,” continuing, “Pilsen has been changing. I have been noticing since I’ve been living here. I don’t mind it, I love artists who come in and do their work.”
The problem, he says, is not with the art school grads who want to play a role in the local dialogue, but with the landlords and the developers who taking over Pilsen’s east-most streets. In his opinion the most interesting work is happening further west, citing examples like Cobalt Studio and the Pilsen Outpost. He worries about the future of his own space, promising “If I had the money I would buy a house here and keep Antena permanently with no worry about being kicked out in the future.”
I asked him if this was a real worry for him, to which he simply replied “yeah.”
Courtesy of Antena
In English and Spanish, public and private, Propaganda Familiar skillfully cleaves the divide that is shaping the neighborhood in new ways today. As street corners and storefronts continue to serve as battlegrounds between two sides of an ever-quickening culture war, Aguilar’s bolded exclamations remind us of a third option in which the impetus of change rests equally on all those window shoppers, pedestrians, and passer-by who must constantly decide when and how to interpret the urban environment. It is the artists who are on the front lines, whether they find themselves east or west of Laflin Street, though the question of who or what they are fighting for is often a point of contention.
You can schedule an appointment to view Propaganda Familiar at Antena gallery, 1755 S Laflin St, through May 6th. The space will be featuring regular exhibitions through the rest of the year, starting with an opening reception for Platform 102 (Brussels) on May 20th.
1: John Bentacur, Pilsen Alliance Housing Assemply & Resource Fair, April 2, 2016