Mario Gonzalez Jr. calls himself a “graffiti purist, hard core.”
In his show “Style Bombing,” Gonzalez brings that artistry to the gallery, expertly walking the line between fine art and street art. “Style Bombing” plays with texture and color over wooden surfaces, yielding pieces that are bright and dynamic. His freestyle straddles graffiti letterforms and abstract form and is done with a masterful, practiced hand (so practiced that it’s hard to tell if his works are tags or paintings). Yet his pieces are not simply reproductions of each other, but frequently artistic experiments that utilize pencil over paint, visible texture from paint rollers, as well as paint drips down the unprimed surfaces of found objects.
We should probably be over it by now, but it is still a bit jarring to see street style confined to a gallery space as pristine and grand as 33 Contemporary in the Zhou B Art Center. And it seems as though Gonzalez enjoys playing around with that dissonance in his work. “Style Bombing” wavers between abstract and expressionist, weaving together studio and street. Still, Gonzalez is clear on one point of style. He is as graffiti as they come.
Mario Gonzalez (or ZORE as he is known in the graffiti community) grew up in Chicago. He quickly transitioned from exploring the relics of inner-city decay to tagging them. From Lincoln Park to South Chicago, Gonzalez drew on his influences in custom lowrider culture, DJs, and breakbeats, and moved his style to the El tracks.
Gonzalez is a subway bomber—“always have been, always will be.” When asked about his move from subway bomber to MFA-holding gallery artist, Gonzalez remarked, “There was no transition. It all flows together.” And the exhibition does flow. He does black, white, and brown abstract swaths of paint on wooden shutters and crates. He does large, brightly colored abstract letterforms that are reminiscent of both skate deck designs and street murals. From wall to wall, the style morphs seamlessly.
As a now internationally recognized artist involved in gallery and street projects around the world, Gonzalez has clearly never stopped drawing on his original inspirations. There is sincerity in Gonzalez’s work and the way he talks about it. What he calls the “roughage of the strokes” and his techniques of splashing and dripping paint are not messy or unclear in any way. It all comes across as deliberate. Gonzalez, after all, has the curator’s eye.
“Style Bombing” is presented in conjunction with Zhou B’s group show, “Has Beens & Wannabes,” which is curated by Gonzalez himself. This show, which Gonzalez has been planning for years, features a diverse range of Chicago artists who have been creating since the early ‘80s. Part retrospective on past decades, part preamble of new things to come, both shows pay homage to the art of the tag. As Gonzalez says, graffiti art has been “hot in the mainstream since the ‘80s.” And it is clearly hot in Chicago. The crowd at Zhou B is a particularly eclectic mix of older art appreciators in fur coats and young dudes in hats. Amid the hustle that comes with opening a high profile show, the tag reigns supreme.
“You can’t have any of this without the tag,” Gonzalez says. And he means it. It’s a bold statement and one that’s reflective of something bigger that’s going on in this show. The tag is more than a signature. Throughout the night, Gonzalez keeps inviting the various artists of “Has Beens & Wannabes” over to a piece by Gary Juarez in Zhou B’s main gallery, a reflective street sign with the words “No Tagging” emblazoned on it, welcoming artists to tag it up publically.
For Gonzalez, the taboo of the tag is something to be played with. It functions more like a stamp—not of intellectual property, but of identity. I created this. This is mine. But I don’t own it. Whether on a subway car or a Bridgeport gallery wall, the tag retains its purist function. Again, as Gonzalez puts it, “it all flows together.”
33 Contemporary Gallery at Zhou B Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St. Through February 9. Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm. (773)523-0200. zhoubartcenter.com