Roman Villarreal’s first-ever retrospective, South Chicago Legacies, opens Friday at the Intuit Art Center

WEST TOWN – A prolific Southeast Side urban artist will be hosting his first retrospective this weekend – an exhibition that reflects the complexities of life in his home community of South Chicago.

Roman Villarreal is the self-taught artist behind a lakeside mermaid whose origins remained a mystery for more than a decade, a tribute to Southeast Side workers in Steelworkers Park, a sculpture of native wildlife in Big Marsh Park, and numerous other public works.

Villarreal will host its South Chicago Legacies retrospective Friday at the Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. in West Town, to debut. The exhibition, which features more than 40 years of sculptures and paintings, runs until January 8th.

“Intuit allows me to share the Southeast Side with the world, not just Chicago,” Villarreal said at the exhibit’s soft launch Thursday.

“One might ponder the ugliness of urban life — what it is, regardless of what we say [ugly],” he said. “But there’s also good points. There’s also beauty and pride. There’s all these things mixed together.”

The arts center is offering free admission on the first weekend of South Chicago Legacies. It is open on Fridays from 11am to 8pm and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 6pm.

Recognition: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Created in the 1980s, the limestone and slate sculpture “Lost II” depicts a woman carrying a parrot on her shoulder, symbolizing the effects of cocaine addiction. A companion piece on display, “Lost I,” shows the effects of heroin addiction.

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 boosted its economy.

Some pieces reference the numbness of substance use and the grief induced by violence. Others bring the viewer into the shared joy of a neighborhood parade and 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, what sets him apart is his ability to combine different perspectives into a unique vision, says Amick.

“He was really able to bring his subjects to life in a variety of mediums, from the tall poplar pieces to the Carrara marble,” Amick said. “He is fearless in what he tackles, the materials he selects and his commitment to presenting his stories and the stories of those he sees and engages with.”

Recognition: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
“The Nation,” an example of Villarreal’s “collage” style of sculpting, features tattoos that read “mi vida loca” and a Pachuco cross — both symbols of urban Chicano culture, Villarreal said.

With symbols such as syringes, skeletons and saints, clear themes run through 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 fused together, much like the faces of a kissing couple in a foam piece called “The Parade” on display across the exhibition.

A viewer of the play once asked Villarreal if the two boxers would kiss. That wasn’t his intention; “Not even close,” he said.

But he was touched when the viewer – whose father was a boxer – said he saw the fighters share a moment of familial or platonic intimacy, despite the violence of their sport.

“It was so cool for me to hear that someone sees my work in this way,” said Villarreal. “It was important to share that moment from someone else who saw it in a very different light.”

Recognition: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
“In a Clinch” features two boxers in a defensive maneuver while “The Rainbow Lounge” appears in the background.

Villarreal lives the mix of grace and toughness that is reflected in his works and in his community, he said.

The Bush native first grew his signature mustache to hide a scar from a violent attack that split his lip in two. As a young man he was a gang member and experienced the horrors of the Vietnam War.

He is also “a man from planet earth” who rejects any form of discrimination; who sees Mother Nature as his collaborator in sculpture; who raves about the unique qualities of each stone he carves.

“I could live at peace with almost anyone,” Villarreal said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pacifist. You hit me, I’ll hit you back. An urban person will defend himself. … When we need to be real, we’re real, but we don’t like crossing that path.”

“Brothers” follows Villarreal and his fellow members of the Royal Knights, a defunct South Chicago gang.
The photo that inspired Brothers. A young Villarreal stands in the center of the photo, wearing sunglasses.

Villarreal fits right in with Intuit’s mission to nurture 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 – a board member of Intuit whose recent book Lakefront Anonymous documents stone carvings like those at Promontory Point – and has spent the last year interviewing and curating Villarreal’s pieces for the exhibition.

“Roman’s work really deserves such a wider audience,” said Amick. “He has so much to share and such amazing work. Much of this is in his studio or home, in addition to public artworks throughout the city of Chicago. We wanted to bring his work here.”

Even if South Chicago Legacies ends early next year, Chicagoans should continue to support Intuit and other venues that have non-traditional creatives at their core, Villarreal said.

“This museum is special,” he said. “You’re doing something so important: you represent the outside world with pride. That’s a big plus for us urban artists.”

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