Words mean a lot to Alberto Aguilar. During his current residency at the Art Institute of Chicago (2015-2016), Aguilar covered his studio in paper triangles and declared it the “Room for Intimacy.” But now, with the paper torn down, the studio is the “Room for Indeterminacy.” As one might suspect, Aguilar, a Chicago-bred and-based multimedia artist and teacher, is no traditionalist.
Aguilar’s work, which ranges from performance art to visual installations, nods to everything from the baroque tapestries of yesteryear to the consumer iconography of pop art. But even as his art zigs and zags from place to place, it is determined to span the gap between point A and point B—whatever those points may be, and whatever the divide might mean.
For instance, take Aguilar’s piece “Pizza Parade” (2012), which started with a conversation Aguilar had with his daughter about nearby mom-and-pop eateries. In a moment of inspiration, he rallied up his family, his daughter making pins and his son wearing a pizza costume, and the group set off westward on Archer from Pulaski to Harlem, asking for a slice of pizza at each pizzeria they crossed.
“It ended up being a way to get to know my community and for my kids to have an experience. They thought it was amazing, and now it’s kind of folklore in my family, it’s part of our history,” Aguilar said. With three major diagonals (Archer, Ogden, Milwaukee) still un-paraded, a second round isn’t completely out of the question, but Aguilar says he and his family are in no rush.
“That was the most pizza we’ve ever eaten in our lives,” he joked. “We were all sick by the end of it.”
Two years later, Aguilar was invited to exhibit his work in a show called “Risk” at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery. The resulting piece, “Wedding to Unknown,” lived up to its name—Aguilar created a real wedding, authentic down to the last detail, where none of the attendees (short of the bride and groom) knew each other. Over a period of weeks, Aguilar sent out invitations to 150 different strangers and found a couple on Craigslist looking for a wedding. But, even the best-laid plans went awry: two weeks before the wedding, Aguilar’s couple “chickened out.” Undaunted, he went to City Hall with a sign offering “a free wedding and reception,” and found a new couple at the last moment.
“No one really knew each other, but there was this moment everyone shared,” Aguilar recalled. “The groom gave a speech and started crying, because somehow, he felt love coming forth. It was like the Pizza Parade—I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but I took that chance, and it worked. That’s what made it an artwork: the risk and surprise and chance involved.”
Aguilar’s latest project, an upcoming self-titled show at the Antena Gallery in Pilsen, is ostensibly new—but it develops on a motif that winds all the way back to Aguilar’s childhood in Cicero, where his parents owned the suburb’s first Mexican grocery store. In the days before LCD flat screens, neon sale signs with slogans like “BUFFALO WINGS $1.25” and “EVERYTHING MUST GO” were ubiquitous in markets like theirs. And so, many years later, Aguilar asked a grocery store employee what happened to the signs after a sale. After learning that they were thrown out, he got an idea.
“I started collecting them, putting them in the windows of my house, and creating obscure, puzzling text to scream out to the neighborhood,” Aguilar recalled. “Most of the time, my neighbors were confused. But that was part of the fun.”
Aguilar decided to look for the signs’ manufacturers. The search, however, didn’t lead him far from home: he discovered that the signs were hand painted in his neighborhood, near Midway Airport on the Southwest Side. Now, Aguilar is able to professionally print his messages—but he continues to work within self-imposed artistic constraints.
“That’s one of the things I decided from the get-go, I would never go in and reinvent [the signs’] language, their medium,” Aguilar remarked. “I would look around and see what sort of imagery and text and font they usually use and then only navigate within their vocabulary.”
In the past, this approach to language has made for striking slogans: signs from prior exhibitions read “LOCAL PATRON LOCAL,”
“INEVITABLE INVASION INEVITABLE,” and “CRISIS INVISIBLE CRISIS.”
As Aguilar explained, these A-B-A phrases consist of cognates: words with identical spellings but different meanings in Spanish and English. The first two words of “FAMILIAR PROPAGANDA FAMILIAR,” for instance, can be read in English to mean “propaganda that is familiar.” In Spanish, however, the connotations are different—the phrase translates to familial propaganda.
“I liked that it was sort of me using my family as a vehicle for something in my artwork—that’s why the A-B-A structure exists,” Aguilar commented. “I like how it works as a bridge. That second word is a bridge to different languages that are spoken in this community.”
The bridges that Aguilar creates in his work are not, however, bound to the gallery. For the Antena exhibition, Aguilar plans to display his signs in the windows of markets throughout Pilsen, as he did some years before in a similarly gentrifying neighborhood of St. Louis. Just as the language of the signs aims to link English- and Spanish-speaking communities, Aguilar hopes their placement will act as a bridge between Antena and the greater Pilsen community.
“When I come up with an idea, I think of it as a solution. I’m never going to solve the issue of gentrification. But at least I can create a kind of bridge.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Aguilar discovered that the signs were hand painted in his neighborhood and that one of his artworks was called “CRISIS INEVITABLE CRISIS.” They were hand painted in his neighborhood and his piece is called “CRISIS INVISIBLE CRISIS. .