An Interview with Luis Sahagun @ Kruger Gallery Chicago

By S. Nicole Lane

Kruger Gallery Chicago is presenting ESCOMBROS (spanish for "rubble"), which features work from the Chicago-based and Mexican-born artist, Luis Sahagun. The exhibit opens with a reception from 6 to 9pm tonight.

Sahagun's background is rooted in the working class — his grandfather worked in the Chicago Heights steel industry, his father in field work, and Sahagun himself has a strong background in construction. The solo exhibition features large-scale paintings on cardboard, as well as installation and video pieces, which emulate his background as a Mexican-American growing up Chicago Heights.

The series includes 20 textured pieces that thrive as self-portraits and self-reflection in terms of youth, labor and experience. Chains, metal, fabric, concrete, cardboard and wax make up the "anthropological site that represents a community" and expands on the concept of identity vs. material. Luis' intimate relationship to his work, not only through his physical touch, but through his autobiographical self, creates a penetrating visual narrative of a community.

I met with Sahagun at Kruger Gallery in Lakeview where we discussed his paintings, utilization of materials, and studio practice.

How did you begin making art?

Well I did my undergrad at Southern Illinois University in industrial design and following my graduation, I worked as a furniture designer for about a year and a half. I was designing machine parts for Provisur, which is a company that produces huge machines that slice meat products.

Oh, wow!

Yeah, they are pretty bizarre. They are the size of this gallery. Then in 2008, because of the recession, they let go of the whole design team, which meant that I was let go as well. I'm from Chicago Heights, a south suburb, and I found out that there was an art gallery from where I grew up and where I lived. Since I was out of work, and had a lot of time, I did an internship there for about a year. I helped the gallery director with curating and working with artists. The gallery had two floors and on the second floor there was a studio, so it gave me the chance to see artists' work and it resurfaced this love for making that I was sort of removed from when I worked in design. Then that led into going into the fine arts for school.

So you didn't grow up making art in the traditional sense.

I definitely loved drawing. I loved drawing cartoons. When I was a kid and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, "I wanna work for Disney and make Disney cartoons". [laughter]

Can you expand on what guides your process and your overall body of work? I know that your framework stems from being a naturalized citizen and growing up in the south suburbs, so can you discuss that a little bit more.

I come from a working class family so at the age of 15, I started working and doing a lot of construction work. I did roofing, worked with contractors, built trusses outside — really laborious work — and all while going to high school. When I was in undergrad, in the summer to get money to pay for my housing, I would work all summer on these projects. So that's one way it directly affects my process. I replaced paint brushes with saws and tools. I've always been in love with "making" and even when I was working in construction it was a very physical thing.

Yeah, and then the outcome is something that is functional and rewarding.

Exactly. I love the aesthetic of it. How can you create something that represents you? And how can you make something that is unique to who you are? So that started leading me into this direction slowly.

You work with materials that are synonymous to buildings, like concrete and cardboard...

Yeah, construction sites.

Exactly. When did you begin working with these materials? In grad school?

Yes! In grad school. I was actually in an MA program for a year because I had no art portfolio to get into the MFA program. I met someone in Chicago Heights who teaches at Governors State University and he loved design so I brought him my design portfolio and some drawings — really old drawings. He started to teach me how to do this very figurative, hyper-representational work. I started using cardboard because of the contradiction to paintings and their Renaissance history of lasting a lifetime. I love using cardboard knowing that it is going to degrade and not last forever — something about the precious and the un-precious. When I entered Northern Illinois University for the MFA program, that's when I started using cardboard. There was a small evolution, step by step, that I started realizing the connection between my construction background and art making.

Right. Yeah. What are some of the challenges that come with working with cardboard? I've made sculptures out of cardboard before for my first sculpture class and I hated it. Is there anything challenging that comes along?

Yeah, definitely. There are a few challenges. It's a material that is often used. I taught a foundations program and we used a lot of cardboard. It's practical, it's very available everywhere, so that presents a challenge. How do you take a material that can be seen as not as sophisticated as something else? But I really do love cardboard. It's funny because I was just thinking the other day, "...if I could use one material, just one, it would be cardboard," because you can do anything with it. There is so much to it. It can be very pristine and it can be rough. It's so versatile.

Yeah, and you paint on top of yours. Some of your pieces don't even look like cardboard. It's interesting. I'm looking at the piece behind you ["Beautiful Suffering"]. Can you describe the layering affect in your pieces?

Well, I was using cardboard for a while and I decided in my studio that I was using it too much. So I kind of put the cardboard away. [laughter] I forced myself to do other things. Since I am material driven, I just come in and I make and I make and I make. There was this moment where I had a couple of boxes and I started stacking the actual boxes and I made a sculpture out of it where I made an arch. I visually saw it in my mind collapse and squash together, if that makes sense. I thought to myself, "Oh! You can smash them all together". I just started gluing one piece to another and then I zoned out and kept gluing and gluing.

Do you work on several pieces at the same time? You were just saying how you are material driven. You don't draw out a plan, you just start making pieces spontaneously?

Yeah, yeah. That's how I love to work. I love to come into my studio. It's sort of a combination because there is a lot of rubble in my studio. For example, if I'm working on a cardboard piece, half of it gets chopped up and I start focusing on the other half. Maybe two months down the road, the original piece is there and that leads me to another actual piece. So there is a lot of reusing. My studio [laughter] is really congested with things. I'll tinker with things in one corner and then I'll go to another. But whenever something big does take my attention, I do focus but I make sure to take breaks. The mere physicality of it all forces me to take breaks. I can only use the saws in my studio for a little while before it can cause nerve damage.

Oh, really?

Even with gloves. Your hands start cramping up. So I have a habit where I'm cutting and cutting and then I work on something else. Maybe I start doing a painting or something.

Can you talk a little bit about the installation/video piece in the exhibition In My World-Expressive Mark Making?

I was thinking again about how to create a mark that is yours. I was really influenced by this artist who had a condition where he had to meditate — I can't remember if they were migraines — but he had to be on the floor all of the time. He would do his drawings on the floor. I was thinking of how I could make a mark. I did amateur boxing for a little while when I was in Chicago Heights. Boxing was such an important thing for me. I decided to get these materials and put them together. I was thinking of making something visual and something that has a conceptual force, which is me.

It's also a performance piece. Have you ever thought of doing any further performances?

Yeah, I have thought about it. It's something that always in the back of my mind but I haven't done a full performance where it is about myself. I was in an exhibition that was called Appetite for Destruction [at Fulton Street Collective] where the work was open for the audience to engage with.

Is there a reason for painting on top of the cardboard instead of keeping it the brown color that is typically is?

Yeah, I want the viewer to have more to look at. I was thinking about abstraction and working with physical space and literal space. I wanted to work with paint to push that space with the illusion of color and shading or try to contradict a space. What happens if the light color pushes you back in and another part pops out? Does that work or doesn't it? If cardboard is a found object, can paint be found? I was using lipstick and nail polish...

[laughter]

Cardboard can be used as an image or as a material. So I try to apply that to painting too.

You studied paintingm correct?

Yeah.

How did it affect your sculptural practice? If it did at all.

I've always seen myself as a painter. I see these as paintings.

Oh, okay!

I mean it's okay if they are called sculptures but most of the time I'm approaching my work in a painter's kind of view.

So these are the canvases.

Yeah! When you're in an academic setting you're studying a lot of art history. Most of the art history that is taught, is painting. I do love a lot of sculpture. Where I did my MA, there is a beautiful sculpture garden there and so I had an opportunity to experience it but my mentality is always as a painter.

Are you working on anything that is completely new from what you are presenting now?

[laughter] Yeah, absolutely. I'm really into doing miniature work. It has returned me to the brush. I started painting again and I didn't realize how much I missed it. Now that I have gone and used a lot of materials and really experimented with form, I think I'm interested in seeing if all I can use now is just paint again. I want to return to a canvas and see what it will look like. I may or may not push that more but right now I'm really just enjoying going back to a paintbrush.

Luis Sahagun is expected to receive his MFA from Northern Illinois University in May. He was awarded best in show at Chicago's School of Audio Engineering Institute's Emerging Artists Exhibition in 2012. He was also featured in New American Painting's MFA Annual in 2014.

ESCOMBROS is on view from March 20 through May 2. There will be an opening reception from 6 to 9pm tonight at Kruger Gallery Chicago, 3709 N. Southport Ave. Follow Kruger Gallery on Facebook and Instagram.

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