Oscar Chavez walks into Bru, an equal parts cafe and juice bar located in the heart of Wicker Park, on a warm, sunny afternoon. Chavez orders a smoothie that further accentuates his brightly colored clothing before taking a seat.
Adorned with a slew of intricate rings, his hands follow the patterns in his voice as he speaks excitedly and energetically about everything from philosophy to pop culture.
Unlike many of his generational peers, Chavez isn’t afraid to show just how much he cares, a trait that is admirably reflected in the work he produces. From performance art to paintings, the art of Oscar Chavez will leave you feeling just a little less alone.
OffKilter: Just tell us a bit about your background and where you’re from.
So I’m from Chicago, south-side, born and raised.
Oscar Chavez: Word?
Yeah, far south-side. So I’ve just been in Chicago this whole time. I went to school for one year in central Illinois. […] I came back [in 2013] and I’ve just been at UIC since then.
OK: What are you studying?
Painting, photo, art in general so a bunch of everything. UIC is a super small school so they don’t make you choose one specific thing.
OK:When did your interest in art begin? What initiated it? Especially when it comes to performance art, how did that all come together?
You just actually reminded me of something. So I was hanging out with someone I went to highschool with and they said “oh yeah I remember this performance art you did in school” And I was like, “oh shit I forgot I was doing things back then!” Especially when you’re a teenager, you’re just like making things all the time… It reminds me of when me and my friend sent out a FaceBook invite to everyone in our high school and bought a huge boombox and threw a party on the Red Line. Everyone started blasting music and everyone started dancing… I forgot… I was just making things! So yeah I was just making things forever. I wasn’t really, like, focused on anything. I knew I wanted to make things but did not really know what.
[But] especially in the last three years of school I’ve been focused on what I like, what I’m interested in, and the ideas I like to play with, what I’m interested in. But back to performance, it’s only been a few months. It started from reading a lot of theory — a lot of theory of abstract art, abstract expressionism — because I was realizing that much of it was like the performance of painting. But no one is really there for it… Well that sucks…. So ever since then I’ve been kinda [thinking about] what’s the importance of the painter, what’s the importance of the viewer?…
OK:Let’s backtrack a bit. What were you like as a kid then?
I was always making things. I made my own costumes since…
OK: Like Halloween costumes?
Yeah… I was always like down to look different, to look stupid.
OK: So you study painting?
OK:You used to do these parties on the Red Line back in the day. So what other mediums are you working with?
My main thing is called the three P’s — painting, performance, photography. That’s kinda the three things that I’ve been working with inside and outside of school. Photography not so much because I work so much in the studio…. But they all kinda blend together. A lot of my photo work is people who have been painted, using bodies that have been covered in paint. A lot of my paintings are like based off my photos and then performance is kind of a mix of all of them.
OK: So, Bullett Magazine reported on a sort of public art installation in various Chicago locations. You painted your body in public spaces. Why did you do that?
So that was coming from another piece I did. Right before that I did a performance where I created an outfit out of canvass and then bound myself to an easel for an hour. And set up materials. [People were going in and out and just going at it, just covering me in paint]. So I was really interested… in the role of the artist and the role of the viewer. Like in that one, I’m also the artist and the painter and the painting itself. But that piece itself could not exist without the people who were coming. It’d just be me standing there for a while.
That’s [also] when I was thinking about the loneliness of painting. It was in the middle of finals and I was sitting in the studio for hours on end painting…. I was like “this sucks.” All other mediums you get to work with someone and [I’ve just been sitting alone].
I’m really interested in taking the painting and moving it into the street and having people deal with it. And obviously I just went straight to using my body for it. So yeah I’m like “I spent so much time painting a lone, I’m going to paint in front of people whether they want to see it or not.”
OK: So we watched this morning…
Not the whole thing because they’re like super long.
OK: We saw the first 10 seconds of each one like, “this is so cool!” But yeah, how did the public react to that?
I’d say mostly, people kept their head down and ignored. That was the one go to for most people. Some people were just genuinely interested… Most people just wanted to take pictures. I got tipped once! I got 15 cents from a little kid.
I just start bursting out laughing like, “Thank you so much!”
But yeah there was a lot of ignoring… I also didn’t make eye contact but people were just like, “I’ll get my picture and keep going.” Which I didn’t realize until I like watched the videos back.
OK:How did you decide the locations?
So there were three. The first one was in an elevator. The piece was also inspired by a piece called Canvas 3 by Adrian Piper, [an artist from the 60s]…. The one I really love [by her was when] she covered herself in super wet paint and went shopping at Macy’s. So I did it at Macy’s in remembrance of that piece. And the third was supposed to be in front of the Art Institute but they made me leave before I finished setting up. So I just went to the corner in front of Millennium Park. …So that ended up working out.
OK: So with that, do you consider your art political in anyway? Like was that your intention?
I’m not sure because I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Because I’ve been looking at a lot of my friends art, a lot of other performance artists, that are making really amazing art about like immigration… and sometimes I feel like my work is so derivative. Like I’m looking back on a painting like, “whatever.” Everyone makes art about different things. I really can’t care that much.
I don’t really come from a political stance. I think using your body in work, in general, makes it political.. [Just being aware of your surroundings, or your identity]. It’s inherent in the work, for sure.
OK: You seem to work with the human body and color a lot, where does that inspiration come from?
I think using bodies in my art came first from my photo work because I was interested in using bodies as objects. So a lot of my photo work involved painting people and putting them in these positions and cutting off body parts and really seeing how bodies can be used as objects. Once I got comfortable with like… not wearing clothings and being covered in paint [surrounded] by people, I was like… Oh! I can do this in so many different ways. Now [that realization] is trickling into some of my paintings. It’s all just kind of like connected.
OK: So you already mentioned sort of being inspired by Adrian Piper. And she was an artist in the 60s right? So like… what sort of contemporary artists influence you? Inspire you? Or even that you want to work with?
I really love the Kerry James Marshall show at the MCA… I don’t know, I feel like I find a lot of inspiration in artists that work on completely different subjects than me… [Just] looking back at art history and replacing things and being like, “We existed this whole time.” is super inspiring to me. So like… lately I’ve just been inspired by a lot of artists from the 60s. Ana Mendieta. She’s an amazing Cuban artist. I’ve been looking to the past a lot recently. And I’ve been looking at a lot of land artists because the last piece I just did I used the land in a very specific way. None of these works are seen in museums or have anything really to do with art… it’s just people creating, which I think is super fun.
OK: I guess… I’m kind of curious now because we’ve talked about what in art specifically inspires you, but at least to me, looking at you I feel like your art is very reflected in like… your choice in fashion and things like that. So I guess in the fashion, music, and film industries, what do you draw from and use in your work?
Anything that’s super super saturated – things that we see all the time that are just disgusting and in your face… I’m obsessed with.
OK: Like pop culture?
Yes! I can’t help it, it’s so funny. It’s just… in your face.
We all hate it but we’re all living with it.
OK: You almost… can’t not address it.
Yeah… I don’t exist in the world outside of that. I love taking things from the internet and putting them in different contexts ‘cause it just confuses the hell out of people. I’m working on business cards also ‘cause I keep meeting people that ask me for one and I just want the front side to be blank with the loading symbol in the middle. [Laughs.]
Work in a Vacuum
Intrigued by the concept of being isolated in art, Oscar Chavez took this idea of the vacuum, the place where nothing else exists, and created a painting on a large canvas by utilizing an actual vacuum as a brush. The 25 minute performance piece was created in collaboration with sound artist, Chris Fanneli. It begs the question – if you’re making work and there’s no one there to see it, to experience it, then does it even exist?