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Monday, March 23, 2009

Pilsen Heads North

Art Review

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In the 1970s, the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago's Lower West Side became the capital for a predominantly Mexican population. More than 30 years later, Pilsen remains a vibrant center for Mexican-American culture and art. It seems fitting then that Walker's Point, Pilsen's sister neighborhood to the north, should host two concurrent exhibitions of Pilsen-based artists, both on view at the Walker's Point Center for the Arts through April 25.

Artist Gabriel Villa, whose portraits share the walls of the rear gallery space with the works of printmaker Ren Hugo Arceo, curated the work of eight additional Pilsen-based artists for the group exhibition. While the artists are linked geographically, their works take distinct approaches to both internal and external landscapes, and politics both sexual and international.

Near the gallery's front window, painter Robert Valadez draws inspiration from the mother/whore dichotomy in a pair of large, gilt-framed pieces. In La Sirena, a topless, tattooed mermaid with parted lips and excellent posture perches atop a jagged rock, her crimson tail curled around her. In Valadez's La Virgen, the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe, a Marian apparition particular to Mexican Catholicism, hovers above a blue-winged cherub.

Across from La Virgen, a shrouded icon of a very different sort is employed in Ricardo Santos Hernndez's mixed-media installation, Bombs Over Baghdad. In this overtly political piece, Hernndez uses the figure of Death and two- and three-dimensional skulls to critique America's war on Iraq.

In the rear gallery space, curator Villa and Arceo fill the walls with richly textured, figural pieces rendered in a primary palette. Villa's large, unframed works on paper are portraits of the disenfranchised local inhabitants of Pilsen. There are no arid spaces on Villa's works; he incorporates elements of frottage, expressive brush-strokes and delicate cross-hatchings to activate the entire surface. In Urban Halo, a crown of rats circles the head of a seated figure, whose eyes and mouth, half-closed, suggest a saint's ecstasy or an altered state. Along the edges of the piece, a row of stamped pennies line the perimeter. These lowliest of coins amount to little more than throwing small change at big problems; a pittance for systemic poverty.

Arceo's body of work, most of an earlier vintage than Villa's recent pieces, comprises a selection of original acrylic works on paper and a striking quartet of figural linocuts. The latter are the strongest pieces; Arceo deftly uses the contrast between monochromatic or minimal color and bare paper to carve portraits from negative and positive space. Arceo's masterful technique painstakingly mimics the intricate textures of a woodcut in Lacandon Boy, a recent and finely detailed black-and-white portrait of one of the Maya people contoured with hundreds of tiny cuts.

The works of Arceo, Villa and the eight "Artists of Pilsen" draw a composite portrait of a diverse and vibrant community of artists who manage to find beauty amid the challenges facing their neighborhood, and as a result, create a dialogue that crosses not only state lines, but resonates beyond cultural, racial and economic borders.