NORMAL – Pedestrians and drivers orbiting the Uptown Circle in Normal might be forgiven for dispensing the occasional double-take as they glance toward the towering new showcase windows of Illinois State University's University Galleries.
Situated front and center is a large dome-like structure that looks as if, nah … well, maybe … in fact, yes: it's been entirely constructed of clothes.
Several dozen hamper-fulls, in fact.
Closer inspection reveals a wood frame for support and shape, measuring, for the record, 12 feet in diameter.
But the overriding visual motif is one of the sensible "layered" look of cold-weather apparel taken to a kaleidoscopic new level: layers upon layers of every style and textile imaginable, from a flowered dress to a distressed scrap from a leather jacket to torn sweatshirts to ripped denim to something only the original owner might know for sure.
The Galleries' spectacular new space on the ground level of the Uptown Station parking deck was made for the likes of “Winded Rainbow,” the recently opened exhibit of Chicago artist Juan Angel Chavez's recent sculptural pieces assembled from accumulated materials.
They range from the clothing adorning "The Hut" (the piece just described) ... to charred wood from a fiery truck wreck ... to discarded signage ... to great swatches of synthetic hair extensions formed into stylishly hirsute, if not quite distinct, members of the animal world's mammalian sector, christened "Beyonce" (referencing both the singer and the street slang expression for a hair weave) and "Buffalo Sade" (referencing both the '80s pop singer and the same-named brand of hair extension).
The show's curator, Kendra Paitz, recalls a recent day of "dumpster diving" around the Twin Cities with Chavez, searching for the discarded or disposable detritus of our existences, all the better to reform them into his idea of a shared experience: from our lives to his and back, reshaped and perhaps redefined.
Fourteen filled garbage bags later, the artist was good to go on a show that has been in the works since the middle of 2013.
From his own heritage, Chavez has evoked the experience of an ancestor who prospected throughout the western U.S. as an explorer in a new land that demanded resourcefulness and ingenuity in matters of survival and the materials needed.
Thus, the resourcefulness of "The Hut's" salvaged textile walls ... a survivalist motif echoed in several other, if smaller works, including pieces comprised of bowed fishing rods (echoing the search for food) and the charred wood (the need for fire) over which Chavez has applied text derived from old Hollywood western movies reflecting that same sense of past-meets-present.
For "The Hut," Chavez and the Galleries have partnered with Bloomington's own Home Sweet Home Ministries, which provided the textile facade out of its inventory of damaged clothing that can't be worn but that can be salvaged via its HSHRenew program, which recycles close to two million pounds of materials annually.
The generated income, around $250,000, goes toward supporting local programs serving the homeless and the poor.
"This is amazing to see the textiles re-purposed in this manner," says Matt Drat, Home Sweet Home's donor relations coordinator, as he gazes over the assemblage, which, befitting its origins, can serve as a shelter, through a textile door that opens onto a flooring of black sand. "This is truly an embodiment of the artist's vision."
Beyond its function as a work of art, sharing both artist's vision and the materials' ties to the community, Drat sees the partnering of social service agency and art community "a perfect way of helping people learn about HSHRenew and understand it."
And contributing to it: A bin for donations will be located in the gallery through the show's run, through April 4, with visitors encouraged to donate textiles, clothing and shoes.
Also involved with the show and its activities is the local Ecology Action Center, partnering in an afternoon of family activities this Saturday (see accompanying story).
"I like to move in a direction that lets the materials dictate what the object should be, as opposed to manipulating the materials to fit an object or form an object," says Chavez, who defines himself as "a Mexican-born artist, adapted Chicago native, distinctive visionary and spirited explorer."
Until recently, Chavez was best known for his defining work of the past 10 years, created with one foot in his Mexican heritage and the other other in Chicago's urban milieu, where he's been an active participant in the city's skateboarding, rave and graffiti artist communities.
"I'm partly SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago)-schooled and partly street schooled," he once said.
That precursor to "Winded Rainbow" is the first phase of Chavez's work that will be presented to visitors at the University Galleries: a small gallery showcase of maquettes for his large-scale, largely wood-based public space sculptures installations from 2007-14.
Also featured are photographs of the full-scale versions, none of which exist in their original form since Chavez designed them to be transitory: a temporal experience as opposed to timeless entity.
An example is 2007's "Speaker Box," a 25-foot architectural "stereo speaker" that provided a free practice and performance space within public arts centers in Chicago and Boston; and 2014's "Points to Blossom," which dominated the plaza next door to the Chicago Tribune last summer with a fantasia of flowering plywood that just maybe reflects the skateboard sector of Chavez's Chicago heritage (in fact, on the last night of its existence it was opened up for skateboarder use and attracted, says the artist, around 30 willing and able to navigate its many byways.
"It was a good way of saying goodbye to the piece," he says.
Paitz requested that this part of Chavez' sculptural heritage be included in the show to deepen both the understanding and appreciation of the new direction his work has taken.
"The maquettes are amazing objects on their own and people need access to them to know where he comes from," she says. "With the photographs, they bring together an incredible body of work."