WEST TOWN — A prolific urban artist from the Southeast Side will debut his first retrospective show this weekend — an exhibit that reflects the complexity of life in his home community of South Chicago.
Roman Villarreal is the self-taught creative behind a lakeside mermaid whose origins remained a mystery for more than a decade, a tribute to Southeast Side laborers in Steelworkers Park, a sculpture of native wildlife at Big Marsh Park and numerous other public works.
Villarreal will debut his “South Chicago Legacies” retrospective Friday at the Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. in West Town. The exhibition, which features more than 40 years of sculptures and paintings, runs through Jan. 8.
“Intuit is allowing me to share the Southeast Side with the world, not just Chicago,” Villarreal said at the exhibition’s soft launch Thursday.
“You could dwell on the ugliness of urban life — which regardless of what we say, it is [ugly],” he said. “But there’s also good points. There’s also beauty, and there’s pride. There’s all these things that are mixed together.”
The art center is offering free admission for the first weekend of “South Chicago Legacies.” It’s open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The artworks, curated by Intuit’s Alison Amick, take visitors on a tour of life in South Chicago amid the decline and eventual death of the steel industry that drove its economy.
Some pieces point to the numbness of substance use and the grief caused by violence. Others bring the viewer into the communal joy of a neighborhood parade and the brotherhood among young Brown and Black men serving in the Vietnam War. Others draw on centuries of Aztec and Mexican symbolism.
In addition to Villarreal’s attention to detail and skillful technique, it’s his ability to combine varied perspectives into a singular vision sets him apart, Amick said.
“He was really able to bring his subjects to life in a variety of media, from the tall cottonwood pieces to Carrara marble,” Amick said. “He’s fearless in terms of what he tackles, the materials he chooses and his commitment to presenting his stories and the stories of those that he sees and engages with.”
With symbols like syringes, skeletons and saints, there are clear themes throughout the exhibition. But its beauty — and the beauty of urban art in general — is that the pieces are open to interpretation, Villarreal said.
The faces of the two boxers featured in the sculpture “In a Clinch” appear melded together, much like the faces of a kissing couple in a foam piece called “The Parade” on display across the exhibit.
A viewer of the piece once asked Villarreal if the two boxers were kissing. That wasn’t his intent; “not even close,” he said.
But he was touched when the viewer — whose father was a boxer — said they saw the fighters in a moment of familial or platonic intimacy, despite the violence of their sport.
“It was so cool for me to hear somebody seeing my work in that manner,” Villarreal said. “It was important to share that moment from somebody else who’s seen it in a completely different light.”
Villarreal lives the blend of grace and toughness reflected in his works and in his community, he said.
The native of The Bush first grew his trademark mustache to hide a scar from a violent attack that left his lip split in two. He was a gang member as a young man, and experienced the horrors of the Vietnam War.
He’s also “a human being from planet Earth” who rejects all forms of discrimination; who views Mother Nature as his collaborator in sculpture; who gushes about the unique qualities of every stone he carves.
“I could live in peace with just about anybody,” Villarreal said. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pacifist. You hit me, I’ma hit you back. An urban person will defend themselves. … If we have to be for real, we’re for real, but we don’t like crossing that path.”
Villarreal fits right in with Intuit’s mission to promote self-taught artists and those “who haven’t received attention from the mainstream art world,” Amick said.
She was introduced to Villarreal’s work through William Swislow — an Intuit board member whose recent book “Lakefront Anonymous” documents stone carvings like those at Promontory Point — and spent the last year or so interviewing and curating Villarreal’s pieces for the exhibit.
“Roman’s work really deserves such a broader audience,” Amick said. “He has so much to share and such an amazing body of work. Much of it is in his studio or his home, in addition to the public works of art throughout the city of Chicago. We wanted to bring his work here.”
Even once “South Chicago Legacies” wraps early next year, Chicagoans should patronize Intuit and other spaces that center non-traditional creatives, Villarreal said.
“This museum is special,” he said. “They are doing something so important: They represent the outside with pride. That is a big, big plus for us urban artists.”
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