Interview by Lise McKean
New Works by Mario Gonzalez, Jr. at Maxwell Colette Gallery, Chicago
Opening Friday, November 18, 2016
LM: Some readers may have rediscovered your work in 2013 through Paint, Paste, Sticker, the show on Chicago street art that Nathan Mason curated at the Cultural Center. You’ve been away in recent years so how about reintroducing yourself.
MG: My name is Mario Gonzalez Jr, AKA Zore 64. Many of the old school 80s and early 90s artists knew me as Zorro because I started doing my big shows when I was 17.
LM: Did you grow up in Chicago?
MG: Yes, I’m from Chicago. I’ve been doing graffiti here since the early 80s, and started showing in Chicago in the mid- to late 80s. I was raised in the streets and the subways. But Randolph Street Gallery was my entry into fine art including performance and installation. And I was in and out of SAIC along with the Guild Complex so I became well versed. I was very fortunate because I was a shy street kid but had a fierce attitude with graffiti. I’m a very strict and firm believer in graffiti and its history throughout the world.
LM: Can you tell us how your experience with large scale work with graffiti intersected with your formal art education at SAIC?
MG: I would say that we were not popular in the art schools. A lot of graffiti writers were shunned by faculty and students. The galleries liked us. The Painting department never wanted to have anything to do with me. But I would find other faculty and professional artists. The most successful artists were the most positive artists. They were telling me, “You’re already doing art. Keep doing it.” It was important because in the streets we have a saying: “Don’t stop.” It’s what you tell younger kids. “Don’t lose the momentum.”
I was fortunate to be part of the office of non-degree programs and later even worked there. I was the on-site coordinator for the Navy Pier art classes. We hired great artists who showed me that you can do great things. They opened a can of worms, and I haven’t been able to shut up since then.
LM: What was in that can of worms? What did they open up?
MG: That I could do anything I wanted to do. And nobody could tell me otherwise. You can become pompous with that or be humble and do the most that you can with it. I wasn’t afraid to participate in the high art world. I would apply for grants, propose shows, curate, and execute large mural work. But I felt like I was a crawling baby. I feel that’s what the art world did to graffiti writers in the 80s. They started capitalizing on a movement that wasn’t fully mature. A lot of people expected us to slap graffiti on a canvas and be okay with selling it for thousands of dollars, which we did. It turned me off and I ran away for 15 years.
LM: People might think of Basquiat in this context. Do you have experience of the scene that grew up around him?
MG: Basquiat wasn’t just capitalized by galleries. He was capitalizing on other graffiti artists. They saw the moment. They were the original street artists who saw an opportunity and jumped on it. Their first shows were graffiti shows in the early 70s. The big boom, the golden era was the 80s. Everyone capitalized on the graffiti game, including the graffiti writers themselves.
I believe the pioneers built a platform that you can never turn back. It will always go forward from the late 60s. That includes my father. I have baby pictures in front of my father’s graffiti. I wanted to be anything but a graffiti writer. In high school at De La Salle Institute my goal was college and becoming an architectural engineer. I wanted to design and build. My father asked, “Would you rather push a pencil or a broom?” I had no problem pushing a broom. I worked throughout high school. Who would have thought 30 years later my pencil strokes are paying the bills?
LM: Sweeping with a broom, spraying paint from a can, making pencil strokes—they’re all physical acts with scope for expanding and minimizing the gesture.
MG: About graffiti and work large scale, I learned in art school is that there are unlimited resources and unlimited ways to present my work—puppet making, glass blowing, sculpture. Every new medium I discovered led to me thinking about what I could do in graffiti. I have sculptures from the early 90s and later Nathan Mason asked to see them. I did some in 2008 but they were stolen. It feels like every 10 years I return to things. My resurgence in the art world is about going back to go forward. Meaning everyone’s in a hurry to do something new but they leave out the bare essentials. You can’t leave out the salt, pepper, and onion. You can’t leave out the fundamentals.
Everyone is so busy in the computer era doing new things. But they don’t take time. I’ve searched my inner child. When you care so much that you stop caring, that’s when you create. That’s when nothing else matters and it just comes out. For example, everything that I use is discarded. Just like my generation. We’re a generation of discarded young artists. We were left out. Nathan Mason and other people were able to realize that there’s a whole generation, over 20 years of a disenfranchised movement that comes from Chicago that should be acknowledged, celebrated, honored. We’re discarded youth who have grown up to bite them in the ass. Since I was a kid I’ve been proving them wrong about what graffiti is and art is not.
LM: Who do you mean when you say “them?”
MG: Art school professors, galleries.
My last major show before I came back was at Randolph Street Gallery in 1993. At that time our work was talked about and dissed. The 1993 show was a renaissance piece with performance, public participation, and renegade, avant-garde style. I turned Randolph Street Gallery into an underground graffiti hip hop happening and invited everyone and their mother and child to participate in building a graffiti installation. The Fire Marshall came to shut the gallery down and 12 people were arrested standing in line. This was during the ban on spray paint. Chicago is the only place in the world that has a ban on spray paint. And it’s the biggest market for it.
LM: It sounds like your Randolph Street Gallery show brought graffiti-making into the gallery to assert that it’s art.
MG: The worst thing they could have done is to teach art history to a young graffiti writer. I’ve always been interested in art history, as a brown, Latino, native man. I’ve been in a position to hear massive contradictions about what things are and are not art. So it made me explore who I am as a Chicagoan, US citizen, native, Latino. It got me questioning authenticity and divisions like legal and illegal, graffiti or not. This constant nagging questioning made me realize that graffiti is the original art.
LM: By the original art, are you thinking of prehistorical paintings on cave walls as graffiti?
MG: Yes, graffiti was the original art and still is. Just like the average American who questions who the natives are. The people who are lost in the question are the natives. We’re beyond the question of whether graffiti is art. Art is graffiti.
LM: Here we are in your studio. I’m wondering what are the differences and similarities in the ways you approach the two aspects of your art practice: studio made and street or public art.
MG: In the streets it’s important to maintain tradition, style, and finesse. I have to be Zore, the graffiti master. Nothing less will do.
LM: Does that mean you’re not experimenting much with your graffiti?
MG: No, never, I never experiment. The only experiment is how fast I can do it and how fast I can get away with it. I’m a seasoned graffiti writer. With subway graffiti you’re mastering time. You’re studying people, you’re studying everything. It’s like hunting. It’s like a sport.
LM: So you’re hunting for your moment.
MG: Right, you’re looking for the moment— the 15 or 20 minutes it takes. Your heart is beating. It’s pounding. You’re painting feverishly in the Arctic cold. Or it’s a beautiful summer night and you’re looking down on the city like Spiderman. That moment, that action is the truest, finest moment of art as graffiti or graffiti as art. It’s the performance. And it’s impossible to re-create that energy. So why try to bring it into the studio. It’s impossible. It’s a disservice too. It’s a different beast.
LM: So what goes on in the studio?
MG: In the studio comes the experimentation. In the studio I don’t care about the graffiti world or the art world. I don’t care about anything. I’m a beast in the studio and I’m a beast in the world. I wear out brand new shoes in a week. I find discarded pieces of wood or canvas like a stray dog. Discarded, just like I was. And refined, just like I will be. Like my style and my abstractions. I like making my own inks and markers. My supplies aren’t bought in art stores. They’re found in alleys. I use rollers, big sloppy paint brushes, sticks. I have a collection of pencils that I find every day in the street, in hallways. And they become a major part of my work.
LM: Do you have a cohort of other graffiti writers who have morphed into exhibiting art in galleries?
MG: I’ve been showcasing my work since I was a kid. My recent reentry into the art world came about after becoming discontent with the graffiti world not with the art world. When I was a kid they said your audience isn’t born yet, you have to wait. So do I have to wait until I die? My audience is in their mid-20s and collectors are in their 50s. The art world has caught up and flourished, but the graffiti world has not. We seem to have gone backwards. There’s a new generation of galleries, artists, and institutions that are more open minded. It’s a double-edged sword. My point is that they swept graffiti under the carpet and now there’s a new improved graffiti movement. And it’s so far from what we were. The young can be manipulated. But I was very not cool with that. They’re not dealing with us because I’m too bold. So now they use kids to replace us. There aren’t a lot of graffiti artists who take their art and life seriously. So it’s easy for people to come in and take over our movement.
I’m not going to let that happen. I want to set the record straight. I feel in this mess of street art there should be a representation of real graffiti and abstract expressionism. They’ve been saying painting and drawing are dead. But I like to paint and draw. I realized that nonconformity is not the way to do things. What happened is that I turned 40 years old and I said to myself, I’m going to do this—to go for it.
LM: Go for what? To be a commercially successful artist?
MG: Right, to be a successful artist. Just because no one’s doing it doesn’t mean you can’t. When I’m in my studio I don’t care. I just don’t. I don’t care about what is and ain’t. I just do. It’s very important to just do.
LM: How does your approach relate to what you just said about nonconformity not being the way to do things?
MG: You don’t have to be so extreme. You can be real and participate. The world is waiting for something real. And that is what every artist, gallery, and dealer want. When people walk into my studio, they say I feel this, this is real. I look at them and think, of course it’s real. We still have the old mentality of what fine art is and is not. Everything we learn is still in us. It can be pompous, arrogant, like saying my graffiti is real and yours isn’t.
As a young artist, I thought fuck the art world. I’ll never show in a gallery. I’ll never paint. Then you realize you do everything that you said you’d never do. But at least do it your way. Give me a tattoo gun and I’ll etch a style on you. It’s a great feeling to reinvent your mentality, your energy. Being a born-again artist. A born-again graffiti writer. You hit the perfect note, you know it, and you keep going forward. Keep pushing it. On anything. I’m beyond conformity or nonconformity.
LM: So in this rebirth you’re open to possibilities as they arise in your work.
MG: I’m open. I’m doing whatever I want to do. I’m open-minded but I’m strict. I have things I want to do. The same tradition, the inner child. You go back and ask that 13 year-old, who says ‘I just want to paint, be respected. Pay the bills. Travel the world. It’s not like your inner child says I want do colorful paintings or white paintings. We all want to be free. Why don’t you just go for it? Go for it. Be happy with what you want to do. Stop bitching. I still bitch and complain.
LM: There’s a lot to complain about in the world. What bothers you?
MG: First world problems. I complain about food, radio—everything.
LM: What about solutions for complaints?
MG: I worked in social service agencies, in after-school programs. I’ve done my civic duties. Maybe I’ve taught more graffiti writers than anyone else. I’m grateful for it. And they’re grateful. I’ve paid my dues in the streets, subways, classrooms. I owe nothing to anyone. I owe my inner child a chance to prevail. I’m not against that kind of work, I’m just done with it. I know it’s a big trend now social action in the arts. I did that 20 years ago when people were against it. Now it’s cool to invest in the hood. It’s called gentrification. After teaching other people’s children and having apprentices, sometimes you get lost. Now it’s time for me to explore and have fun. To paint and travel and influence in different ways. We’re aesthetic priests. I don’t have to speak. Either you feel it or you don’t. Some people don’t give a crap and shake their head and walk out. I see when people do care. And sometimes it’s a 75 year-old couple or a teenage art student or a middle-age banker. I can tell they feel the energy.
LM: Do you have titles for your paintings?
MG: I call them drawings. It’s cool you don’t have to have labels. To break from graffiti and art is so refreshing. Art is a billion dollar industry. Back in the day you were a loser, an idealist, an art fag, a nerd. And idiot. I could go on and on. I came up in the art world when women weren’t treated as artists, when people said women weren’t painters. But graffiti was recognized. It (graffiti) was ahead of women and blacks. There were black gay women graffiti movements. We were kids. Now we have to nurture the kids in recognizing the true from the fads. I always end up talking about graffiti. I have to.
LM: What about your involvement with International Meeting of Styles (MOS)? I read that MOS goes back to 1997 and the Wall of Style at 30th and Kedzie in Chicago started in 2012. This past September MOS was at 2200 W 59th Street and other spots. Was your involvement in that international graffiti movement part of your civic work?
MG: For the civic work, I was developing programs, breakdancing, graffiti. I lived in California for 12 years. Going to Europe for MOS in Amsterdam opened my world. Graffiti writers were already internationally known to each other. International MOS brought the best graffiti writers together to paint. They came without their crew. Each one came on their own to represent their city, region, or country. I said we have to have this in the US. If our graffiti has influenced the world, the world has taken it further. In Canada, Mexico, and South America too. I coordinated MOS for the West Coast and Midwest. The Chicago locations were mostly in Englewood and Little Village.
LM: Tell me about the Wall of Styles at 30th and Kedzie.
MG: That’s my wall. It’s traditional wild style. People started coming together to paint from Italy, Spain, Australia, the Bronx, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Serbia, Mexico, Singapore, Brazil. To bring the world—that was my gift to the Chicago graffiti world. I travelled the world and thought it would be great to bring people I met to Chicago to paint with them. MOS became huge, so huge that it got out of control. I think you should kill it when it’s at the top. So I gave it a rest for a couple years.
I’m not so happy that the Mayor came out to the recent MOS. Thank God I was out of town. I was so embarrassed that he came. The Mayor is not a friend of Chicago. It’s a slap in the face for him to come and take advantage of that opportunity. But a lot of graffiti writers ate it up. It was a moment for the graffiti writers and the mayor. I’m a world citizen. I have no borders, no allegiance other than to create. It sounds self-centered. But if you dedicate your life to others you lose yourself. Meeting of Styles is a venue, a platform for everyone to paint, to have a good time. In Chicago it’s grown from one neighborhood to three and has gotten huge.
LM: You’ve traveled widely and entered many different local graffiti cultures. Are there places that have had an especially strong impact on you as an artist?
MG: As a human, Brazil impacted me. As a graffiti writer, San Francisco was a graffiti heaven. More recently my residency in Gwangju, South Korea was very spiritual, very disciplined, very enlightening. On personal and creative levels, it was perfect. Beyond belief. I had a small studio. I was by myself in a three bedroom apartment. I had my regime. I kept to my ideal schedule for breakfast, lunch, dinner. First coat of paint, second, third. Walking, eat healthily without trying. I was able to explore a culture that has a historic relation with calligraphy as an art of brushstrokes that I was doing already. I used to wonder why people asked if I’m Asian. I’m Latino. Okay maybe I have some Asian background. What is Latino? We were already mixed. I see the Asians paint on wood, they use bold strokes.
I don’t know if it came from living in the Bay Area, where Asians are like Latinos are here. Bay Area culture has strong Asian influence. Or from the character of calligraphy and it’s the bold strokes. Maybe I attached to some way of making bold strokes. I couldn’t see on my canvases when I worked with colors. On the streets I’m a kaleidoscope, but it doesn’t translate to the studio. I want to work with bare necessities in the studio. Black, white, brown of skin. Or bold flavors and spices. Evident, hard hitting spices. Sabor, flavor, style, boldness, confidence. It takes a lot of confidence to destroy a perfectly beautiful painting. Your hands and your vision have to have a sense of finesse.
LM: Looking around your studio, I see work that’s going to be in your upcoming show. What can you tell me about it?
MG: I’ve done a group called Fresh Snow on Concrete also known as the white paintings. A few things are going on. It’s a commentary on the Buff. The Buff is when society wants to whitewash your graffiti and make you go away. But the ink stains prevail. The ink stains saturate the buff. Our black and brown stains come through the white. So no matter how many layers of snow, the hot cement will wash it away and the stain will still be there.
In a nutshell it’s about the under layer coming through the saturated whitewash. It another going back and forth. This time I’m not censoring myself or buffing myself. It’s hard to describe. It’s more about the under layer coming through the layers. You can whitewash, we will always prevail. We will always come through. It’s social commentary, but also it takes a lot of confidence to white wash a beautiful painting. Sometimes the black can overpower the painting. It needs finesse. My works, Ghost Shadow 1 and Ghost Shadow 2 are in a museum in Torino. People got it instantly. It’s the past coming through.
LM: The past comes through in your work in many ways. The past of recorded history. The past that’s left out of history. Your own personal past. Looking in the other direction, what’s on the horizon?
MG: There’s a second part of Fresh Snow on Concrete where I’ll have further explorations of mark-making on collage to collage, plexiglass, and silver paintings. It’s pushing the lighter side of it. From darkness comes light. That’s where I’m going. Expect to see very minimal pieces with masterful strokes and scribe assemblage—sound, metal, wood, plastic.
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