empathy

A Chicagoan Renaissance Man

Directly from Chicago, Art Parasites chats with Sergio Gomez—artist, professor, collector, and curator/director of 33 Contemporary Gallery—an all-around and well-versed player in the Chicago art scene. Gomez gives us an insider’s scoop on Chicago’s contemporary art (including his own!) under the roof of his own gallery, located inside Zhou B Art Center, which is home to two galleries, over fifty artist studio spaces, and even a café lounge. Just like Gomez, Chicago and its art scene are warm and welcoming.

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APs: How did you decide to maintain Chicago as your home base?

Sergio Gomez: I love Chicago. I like that it’s in the Midwest, in the middle of the country, so there’s a lot of artists that come and go. It’s an opportunity to meet a lot of people. We’re not too far from Miami or New York – we’re in a central location. And I love the community that’s here in Chicago; I try, also, to connect with other communities. I see Chicago not as a destination, but as a place of departure. From here, I can connect to all these people, like these shows with artists from Mexico, from Italy. Here’s the hub where we bring all these connections. And my parents came here [from Mexico]. Half of my life I’ve been here and have come to like it quite a bit.

APs: What can you tell me about the Chicago art scene? Is the art community very close-knit or how is it divided?

SG: In recent years, there have been efforts by many people who are working to make connections and to bring together the South side and the North side, the East side, and the West side. It’s divided into neighborhoods and within those neighborhoods are art communities.

Inside the Zhou B. Art Center. Photo: Maggie Wong

There are a lot of new developments in different parts of the city. Like in the South side, here, in Bridgeport, there was not a whole lot going on. And now, you know, there’s this [Zhou B Art Center]. There are other galleries around, the Bridgeport Art Center a couple blocks away. Just like this, there are other communities where the arts are really growing. But, we try not to be isolated from everyone else. We try to connect with other art centers and have dialogue and see how we can work together rather than compete against each other. I think that’s what’s exciting right now.

APs: Amongst this excitement, do you spot any particular movements or trends at the moment?

SGI wouldn’t say a trend, I would call them efforts: people making efforts to connect. River North, for example, they just started what’s called the Brave New Art World. They started two months ago. On the first Thursday of the month, they want to make the art more inviting for the people. Here, we’re making efforts to be open to the community and bring artists. We’re trying to feature local artists and also artists that are international – from Mexico, Italy and China. That’s why I would call them efforts, not movements. They’re not led by one person, but by various individuals who are doing what they can to be more open and connect with each other.

For us, we’re excited when a person comes in for the first time. Our opening day is on the third Friday of the month; people come in, see the art, meet the artist. So, it’s really exciting when you have a person, who’s never been here, see what we have. They love the ambiance, they love the art, they love the people, and then they come back with their friends. So to me, that’s huge because art is not made just for the art community. It’s for everyone. So having people enjoy the experience, then bringing other people—that’s what I think it’s about—the engagement with the community.

People can meet artists; about 50 artists work here at the Zhou B Art Center; they have their studios here. Art lovers can come in, make new friends, follow an artist, or go through the various galleries, see exhibitions. We connect, also, with the universities in the area, helping with the next wave of artists. 

Sergio Gomez with artwork by sculptor Ernesto Marenco. Photo: Maggie Wong

APs: Risky questions: who’s your favorite Chicago-based artist and what’s your favorite art venue in Chicago?

SG: That question could get me in trouble—ha! I don’t know if I have a specific favorite, but there are a lot of people that I follow and have met. Like Mario Gonzalez Jr., he’s a graffiti artist. I didn’t know anything about graffiti art and he has given me a big lesson on what it is, urban art – so I’ve learned a lot from him. Jason Brammer is another artist that has done really, really interesting work here in Chicago. Linda Warren Projects, I think, is one of my favorite gallery spaces to go and see exhibits. Of course, River North; it’s full of galleries. There are pockets [of art] – River North is a very strong art district in Chicago. That’s where people would go when I was an art student. Now, there’s Wicker Park, Bridgeport – there’s so many now, which is exciting. Any given Friday, you can go out to different neighborhoods and look at different openings.

APs: What current projects are you involved with?

SG: We’re doing a variety of things. So, right now we’re hosting a show from Mexico and a show from Italy. Those are long-term collaboration projects where they send us an exhibition and we send them an exhibition. We’re working a little bit with the city of Chicago; a project for Garfield Park Conservatory for next year. We’re working for a project in Miami for this year during the week of Art Basel. We’ve sent exhibitions to Austria, to Spain, and we’re working slowly on a connection with China and Chile. We’re trying to create an exchange program.

APs: Could you talk a little about the upcoming Self-Portrait Exhibition? Is this year’s theme, “Within,” going to be more introspective?

SG: When I opened 33 Contemporary Gallery, I wanted to do a show that was annual, that we could make grow. There were a lot of self-portrait shows, but I couldn’t find one that was annual. So that’s when I started the Annual National Self-Portrait Exhibition, which is open to all mediums – it’s open to all styles too. In other words, it doesn’t have to be a literal illustration of your face. The artist could come up with their own interpretation of what is a self-portrait. Every show goes online. It was always my intention in the end: to have 1,000 self-portraits from contemporary artists. So next year, which will be the 10th exhibition, we’ll complete the 1,000 self-portraits online – that’s when I’ll end the show. I’ll end it at ten years. Every year we get more submissions, more work, it gets more popular, but I never wanted to go more than ten years. This year, there’s a national call for artists, the last national call. The 10th annual is going to be curator’s choice. We’ll celebrate it on the whole first floor – it’ll be big: the grand finale.

The last two years, we did a huge show in the first main gallery, so the show was big, and a lot of work, and some huge pieces. This year, I want the viewer to come in close proximity with the work; a very intimate show. That’s why “Within” is within the limits of twelve inches in any direction. It’s small, so you have to see it up close.

Sergio Gomez at the National Museum of Mexican Art

APs: For your exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art, “Open Doors / Puertas Abiertas,” you created one of the drawings in front of a camera. Why do you choose to perform drawings?

SGI like to work in the studio, it’s kind of like a sanctuary. You go in, you make the work, you are the only one there with the work. But when you do a performance, it brings another aspect of it, which is the audience. Even with just a camera to document, it brings another level of understanding of how you’re working. If you have an audience, you know the audience is expecting something. In the studio, you can go in, make a line, and start reading a magazine. You have that luxury. But when you have an audience, there are two expectations: the expectation of the viewer who’s expecting to see something we call art and you, as an artist, are expected to do something that you can call art. So, viewers experience art in their own way. I like to do it three or four times a year because it has that component that’s interesting to explore. It’s a quiet dialogue, as they observe and you create.

APs: Speaking of creation and as a parting question, how would you describe your art?

SGI think the easiest way to describe it is: my work is about cycles – from birth to the experience of life, which is made out of cycles. Nature, day, night, day, night. Something grows, something dies. My art is about that experience of growth and death and everything in between. 

Article by Maggie Wong