UTSA Downtown Gallery and Unit B Gallery
Juan Chavez, Untitled, 2008; mixed media collage; 9 x 5 x 5 inches; courtesy Unit B Gallery, San Antonio
In the age of Banksy and Swoon, a young, ambitious street artist has many paths to the art museum. The question is not so much whether an artist coming from a graffiti background can gain acceptance in the institution, but how such an artist navigates the range of contexts in which viewers may encounter their work. Sign Language, a dual-location exhibition curated by Kimberly Aubuchon at Aubuchon’s Unit B Gallery and the University of Texas at San Antonio, offers some insight into the ways artists deal with the shifting terrain of street and gallery contexts.
Sign Language presents the work of Juan Angel Chávez and Michael Genovese, who both earned a reputation in recent years for their elaborate murals and assemblages on the streets of Chicago. Genovese, trained as a sign painter, brings a knack for eye-catching script, while Chávez displays his training in sculpture and assemblage; the result is far removed from the bubble letters, cartoon characters and psychedelic baroque often associated with street art. Their large-scale works more closely resemble the loose compositions and raw materials that were all the rage at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Using materials found on the street—from old signage to plywood to traffic cones—Chávez and Genovese have built energetic and humorous assemblages that would make the most seasoned graffiti buffer cower in fear.
Chávez and Genovese present separate bodies of work at the UTSA and Unit B venues. Chávez moves into small-scale, more intimate collages—though his materials are still culled from the streets—while Genovese uses his sign-painting skills in community-driven exercises that flirt with relational aesthetics.
Genovese’s work reveals an artist casting about—looking for different ways to incorporate his background into a contemporary gallery context. As a result, his contributions to the exhibition feel more like a survey than a focused body of work. At UTSA, a fruit cart reading “Corn Piraguas Chicharrones” in Genovese’s distinctive script shares the space with chaotic freeform etchings, leather impressed belts and a rack piled with signs promoting one of the artist’s previous exhibitions. The fruit cart is part of a larger project in which Genovese offers to paint (or repaint) the carts of street vendors for whatever they can afford, or builds a new cart and offers it to the vendor. In a talk at the opening he recounted how often vendors rebuff his offers, figuring him for a con man of some sort. When crossing cultural boundaries, an anonymous act of charity can often be viewed as a trick or act of condescension. Genovese asks strangers not just to buy his art but to have it emblazoned on the vehicle of their livelihood, mingling his professional identity with theirs in a way that demands a certain level of trust. There is a sort of antagonism in this act; the artist is daring strangers to take him at his word. What is not clear is whether Genovese intends to clarify a source of antagonism or demonstrate a kind of positive interpersonal dynamic through charity.
Juan Chavez, Checks (detail), 2007; mixed media collage; courtesy the artist
Michael Genovese, Public Engraving (Chicago), 2008; etching; 2 x 2 feet; courtesy the artist
In other works, Genovese seems interested in taking snapshots of human behavior, be they aggressive, generous, intellectual or profane. He encourages viewers to scratch marks on blank metal panels—a kind of uncontrolled “permission” graffiti, which he later presents as an image of the community in which it was created. Completed versions of these etchings are on view at both spaces, along with blank surfaces to record the random thoughts of San Antonio’s art citizenry. This is a reversal of the carts: rather than asking to mark someone else’s property, he’s asking strangers to mark on his work—to mingle their thoughts with his professional identity. Ironically, this feels more like an act of charity than offering to paint fruit carts. I’m not sure that either action gets to the heart of antagonism or charity, but this is partly due to the fact that the exhibits do not fully commit to this exploration. Signs painted with phrases like “We’re all we’ve got” in different languages muddle what could be a poignant journey into social space.
At UTSA, Juan Angel Chávez’ relatively small-scale collages are more focused, formal and intimate than Genovese’s pieces. He seems intent on trying to impress the viewer with tight composition and lyrical depth rather than scale or spectacle. While this work is among the most conservative in Chávez’ oeuvre, it strikes a perfect balance between ordered design and organic movement. Found materials, ranging from torn posters to animal fur and fake wood laminate, mingle in a layered world of accident and intention. Fragments of an urban environment are assembled into compositions that juxtapose expressionistic splatters and torn edges with elements of graphic and industrial design in a microcosmic portrait of the city.
Some passages feel distinctly constructivist, while others echo the decay and haphazard repair of urban structures. At the same time, Chávez reinforces a sense of unity and stability by floating the collages in the middle of a blank white ground. He says that these works deal with industrial accidents, and they clearly draw on industrial forms as well as disintegration. The interplay of containment and decay runs throughout the urban environment, so work that may have been intended to address catastrophic pollution feels like a broader reflection of the city.
Chávez’ works at Unit B are also collages constructed from found materials, but these diverge from the pieces at UTSA in several respects. While the works at UTSA use strongly contrasting materials—fur next to paper next to metal—several of the pieces at Unit B employ just paper and wood. Two of these works also take an all-over approach, extending to the edges with less compositional structure or central form. There’s also a three-dimensional collage, which apparently addresses industrial accidents: a tiny structure inside a glass bowl resembling a light bulb. The exhibit at Unit B displays more of Chávez’ range, although neither show includes his impressive large-scale structures.
Aubuchon offers an interesting window into the shifting techniques of two artists who employ the city itself as source material. We see the artists diverge into realms of social activation and social representation as they grapple with an embrace of the commercial art world. Although neither artist, in his broader bodies of work, has abandoned representation or activation, in Sign Language these two directions play against each other in a creative and ultimately successful way.
Ben Judson is a freelance writer and Web designer based in San Antonio.