“Intimate Justice” looks at the intersection of art and sex and how these actions intertwine to serve as a form of resistance, activism, and dialogue in the Chicago community. For this installment, we talked to Oscar Chavez in Pilsen about internet trends, the body as a commodity, and tube tops.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
S. Nicole Lane: Where are you originally from and how did you get to Chicago?
Oscar Chavez: Born and raised in Chicago actually. I am from the South Side. So, I grew up in the South Side. I definitely don’t wanna stay in Chicago. But I think being a young artist in Chicago is amazing and there are so many benefits that you can work with.
SNL : How has Pilsen community contributed to your practice?
OC: I mean, I just moved here so I am still exploring. I moved a block from Textile Discount Outlet which has really been turning me up. I am there every morning and have been sewing so much. So that’s been a huge effect on me for sure. I am excited because I keep running into people on the train, on the street, just everywhere, it’s very nice.
SNL: Getting more into your work, I noticed at least from your website, that a lot of your work references social media and the internet. Can you talk about that a little more?
OC: I was born in 1994, I didn’t grow up in a house with the internet so that shapes everything that I see and everything that I do. I think the way I view images, the way I share images, the way I make culture connections to people and all of that is because of the internet and the way I communicate through there. Right now I am still building my language around it. The MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) show about the internet was really interesting to me — very much a conversation that I am not having — so I thought “Oh, I would really get this show.” It was art about the internet, which was helpful for me to realize my art is actually from the internet, not about it. Using these visual tools and sharing tools that feel regular to us and using those really in traditional ways is important.
SNL: I also notice that some of your work is pretty humorous. I think there was a painting of a hand…
OC: The YouTube hand?
SNL: Yes! Oh my god, I loved that.
OC: This is one of my favorites also. The title is just “That Thing YouTubers Do When They Want To Focus on a Product So They Put Their Hand Behind It” which for me is a language of our time. That’s this language that for me — I am really interested in archiving through oil on canvas, which is the traditional way of breaking something down and putting it into a historical canon. Because this is extremely ephemeral, the things we are used to seeing online only last for about a year or two, right? Cameras have gotten so advanced that people don’t have to do that anymore, they can focus by themselves and what does that mean to have this language that people understand? But it’s gone now. And for me it’s really important to put these things down and build this language for ourselves because it is something that we already recognize. Obviously you already have seen this before, we know it, and it doesn’t have a name. We can recognize it and it’s apart of our culture. So for me putting it on oil on canvas is hilarious, because it’s this is like the oldest and most traditional way of doing this and it has to exist in this canon with these other words.
SNL : Does your performance practice incorporate humor at all?
OC: Yeah, I would definitely think so. My performance practice is very colorful. I think it’s a way of having fun with kinda power structures rather than simply being pissed off about them. This piece, “Racial Ambiguous Curly Haired Influencer,” has basic performing as an influencer, and exploring those power structures. There are things that shape the way people are helping to be viewed as a commodity online for brands and for me of course it was like the colors were fun and the images are silly and in the end I am interested in viewing these power structures, really putting myself in there.
SNL: Thinking about power dynamics within the internet. I was looking at your work and it’s not overtly sexual, but I do feel like it does reference the internet, which has been linked to what I feel is sensuality and sexuality.
OC: Again, I think it’s relatively inherent. I think a lot of times the bodies in my work are referencing how I understand how to see a body through images and a lot of that is through sex. Even then I have been moving into using my body much more, and I have been thinking about the way we see bodies of gay men online and the way of all the muscle veins are showing and their ass all the time and that’s how you have to exist in the world.
Look at this painting I just started, this pose is silly, but very much like, “How do we see our bodies and which way do we position ourselves online?” to really understand what it means to be a gay male online. So again, I feel like it’s referencing how the internet has made it very visible to the way we use our bodies for sexual ways for our own personal beings. I think that’s really interesting.
SNL: The pieces with figures don’t have a face usually.
OC: It was super unconscious during the beginning, as time goes on it’s more of my language of bodies as objects. That idea was always very interesting to me. The idea of our bodies being used, if you strip the faces there will be different ways to position and move them around. I think now I am really exploring the ways that our bodies are very much economy and commodities in the way the internet shapes us in ways we can make money. Yeah, they are bodies, but they are not portraits, they are not self-portraits, they are just using it as a tool and in that it’s a bit masochistic and fun, to be me and my friends posing with these crazy ways and using them, contouring them, using them as objects the same way I would use anything else.
SNL: Your work is also very vibrant and color is obviously important to the presentation of it. Can you talk a little more about color and why you choose the certain palettes?
OC: I think my palette has been strictly pink, blue, green for a while. I blame it on the Powerpuff Girls because that was the first video game I bought when I was growing up. I think that is something that I always grav to. The other day I was buying fabric and I would want this, this, and this and I got home and threw it on the floor and it was pink, blue, and green. I was like of course that’s what happens. I think it’s just definitely a part of the way I want to present things. I like works to be very confrontational and visible. I grew up in Chicago, which in my opinion, has a very quiet and minimal way of viewing work. I mean a lot of people don’t like my work because it’s kinda tacky and out there, and they want tiny family photos in a blank room.
SNL: Moving over to these amazing gloves, can you talk about them?
OC: It’s gotten much more apparent since I moved here because I can’t stop sewing. Wearable pieces started for me as an extension of performance. It was very much me reacting to luxury brands around the kind of time of the presidential inauguration. They were making this protest clothing at a time when we were all in the streets actually protesting. These shirts like 500 dollars with protest slang on it, and I was like “What is the real power in this at all? Is there really any?” Can clothing be a protest in itself?
I am constantly performing myself in different ways so for me it becomes an aspect of drag — wake up and get dressed for the day, might as well put on a glove on, throw an earring on, throw a wig on and walk out for the day. It’s all kinda the same, and it helps me build that visual language. One thing that is kinda obvious is that everything kinda blends in all of my practices. Again, I think it goes back to self-autonomy, if I can do it I am gonna do it.
SNL: Do you sell any of these wearable pieces?
OC: No. I really have a weird relationship to money. A lot of my friends hate me for it. I don’t. I gave people gloves for trade agreements. I have had people reach out, I am not super into it. One time this store reached out about carrying them, it was in Brooklyn, and the thought of some kind of rich Brooklyn kid wearing my gloves and not knowing I made them would really freak me out. Knowing that they are so special to me and they are very chosen on who gets to wear them and who doesn’t it is still me trying to figure out the relationship with selling them. Which is funny because it is something that could sell, but I am not really sure how I feel about that or what that means.
I really have a weird and simple relationship to capitalism and the sense that I don’t want to deal with it, but that’s way too simple. For how I live in a bubble and I am 24 and I don’t really have to think about the market because I work part time jobs supporting myself. I know I have to succumb to it at some point and to make things and have fun. Basically what I was trying to do is what if Jenny Holzer did tube tops. And tube tops are funny because they are kinda like scrunchies in a sense that like they are popular now. I was born in the 90’s but I don’t remember it, I didn’t really live through it, so let me be nostalgic and wear them. Which is really funny so I am using these tools, like the tube tops and gloves and kinda things we understand and putting a lot of writing on top of it.
SNL: How often do you come to your studio?
OC: I come every single day. When I was at the Chicago Artist Coalition, I was there almost every day. Now that I have a home studio its every single day which is great. I am definitely one of those people who don’t have couches and stuff in their studios, I don’t want to sit down when I am in my studio. I want to get work done. If I want to sit down and chill, I’m leaving.
SNL: Closing questions: Any upcoming shows or anything new you are working on that you want to talk about? What you want to share or plug?
OC: I think this year I am really focuses on conceptualizing the work and making the work that I am really proud of by myself. Then really writing and talking about my work a lot more. I think something like this or print magazine is something new for me and is actually exciting to think about. One of my friends has been challenging me to do a fashion show and that’s really funny and something I am kinda into. Like have one of my friends wear something and take the train, running around in the streets in a cool outfit. Like it kinda aligns up with my out it in the streets. Just rethinking my practice and to fit in all my works, which is exciting because I don’t have new works.
Featured Image: The artist is wearing a fur collar and white coat. They have on on glove with pink nails. There is a mirror in the background where the viewer can slightly see the reflection of the artists face and hands. The other hand does not have a glove and is holding up various jeweled objects. Image credit: Ryan Edmund Thiel.
Photo by Jordan Levitt.