In a talk last Monday at the University of Chicago’s Contemporary Art Workshop, artist William Cordova discussed how he incorporates the cities he works in into his art. Though based primarily in New York, Miami, and Lima, Cordova has worked as an artist-in-residence throughout the country, including at Chicago’s Threewalls gallery. In each city, he scours alleys and garbage cans in order to collect and reclaim paper, feathers, and household objects that he uses in his artwork, building towers and totem poles out of newspapers and vinyl records in “ephemeral monuments” that he says are inspired by the ruins in his native Peru.
The question of what distinguishes the Chicago art scene and a Chicago artist is one that comes up regularly in local contemporary art circles. Cordova’s works blend local specificity with his own personal identity; though his art is physically made of materials from his current environment, he refers again and again to Peru’s post-colonial struggles, black and Latino communities in America, and the history of other marginalized groups. His art uses forgotten materials to celebrate forgotten peoples, uniting them with their cities through paint and paper.
Cordova visually quotes Jean-Michel Basquiat, the groundbreaking ’80s graffiti and Neo-Expressionist painter, in several of his works. Urban artists of the ’70s and ’80s made a difference with their paintings, he believes; they made graffiti because they had no other venue for self-expression, and their rebellion opened up new opportunities for later artists. Most of today’s graffiti artists are like modern punk rockers, he says: “A lot of it is just posing,” without anything to fight for. His own work, which is shown in galleries and museums like the Whitney in New York, is the product of art school training; nonetheless he seeks to make as compelling a statement against oppression as his artistic and political heroes of the past, albeit in a more legitimized form.