Alberto was born in Chicago to parents of Mexican descent. He has three brothers and one sister. Upon receiving his BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) he married Sonia Leticia Guillen. Together they have four children, half of which are girls. Aguilar also received his MFA from SAIC. Currently he is a tenured instructor of studio art at Harold Washington College –one of the City Colleges of Chicago. Aguilar’s current practice merges his various roles in an attempt to capture fleeting moments, personal discoveries, and his interaction with others in tangible form. Alberto currently has a show on at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Interview by: Kristina Daignault, Michael Soto & guest interviewer Chris Grieshaber.
K: Well, there is a lot going on here today.
A: It’s good you think that there is a lot going on.
K: Yeah? Well, let’s jump right in. Tell me what kind of artist you think you are.
A: I think that I’m an artist that uses, or tries to use, whatever medium is at hand.
K: So, you’re making a new category of art for yourself?
A: No, no, it’s a category. I think it’s all there. It’s there in the domestic monuments. I play with people’s objects. I alter people’s objects. Or in conversations, I make the sound conversations, and the conversations become an artwork. Like what we’re doing right now could be an artwork if it’s edited. And then the dinners are more like an experience. The experience of having dinner, an evening together with strangers, and I bring in all the elements to make it an artwork, or I skew the elements to make it an artwork.
K: So, where did you get the idea to do that?
A: The dinner specifically? I had two curators who came to the house, and they wanted to do a studio visit, and I realized that I didn’t have work in the house. So, I figured that I would just make domestic monuments around the house. I would do some things around the house that were official artworks. But also, I would just treat them with coming into the house. I would give them coffee, give them pastries. I would treat them nicely, and I would give them a tour of the house. I’m filling in all the empties. They were coming and I couldn’t really show them a studio. So we did that, and they were interested. They liked what I showed them. They asked me to be in a show.
C: “Filling in the empties.” That’s quite a statement. Why do you think you felt compelled to do that when they showed up? Outside of you had to do something because they were coming, there must have been something that brought you to that in particular. Can you talk more about that?
A: Yeah, It was sort of feeling like I think I’ve been making stuff in and around the home, and I think it’s a substantial thing in itself. It’s a loaded thing. The way that the home operates is a very loaded thing. And I think that. I felt that. I wasn’t sure they would feel the same way. I wanted to make sure they would have enough to make sure it was a substantial experience so that when they left they would say, “Wow.” The things would really stick, and the memories would really be strong. Think about any experience you’ve had. It was a real experience you could relate to and that you could take as practical information back into your own.
C: Do you think it’s a similar situation with your work?
A: Yeah, I think it is. We are searching for this great thing somewhere else… we all are. We are searching. Like a vacation. We’re all searching for this experience, but when all is said and done, this experience exists right in the home if all the elements are brought together. The lights are turned on right, the music is… that’s one of the things with the dinners that I started doing right away. I would make a soundtrack that would be repeated throughout the night. I found that if you came up with like 6 songs… or 12. More than 12 songs is too much. But if you come up with 12 songs to be repeated, that’s sort of a signifier that people will return to in their minds. “Oh, that song reminds me of that night.” The less songs that you come up with, of course, the stronger that it’s going to be. Anywhere under 3 is way too little. Lighting goes into it. The music. Oh, and program. What I learned through this is that people love programs.
K: To keep awkward silences from happening?
A: That’s part of it, but also to make the guests think that something else is coming.
C: That’s a point of engagement right? If you have some sort of program, whether real or imagined, it’s kind of a framework.
A: Yes, that’s a word I’ve been using a lot lately. In teaching my art making, I think about framework. When I think back to undergraduate, I think one of the reasons why as an undergraduate student I couldn’t make clear work is because I never had a framework, and when I see my students and their inability to make clear works, I notice that it’s because they don’t know how to create a framework.
C: You build a house, you need a structure for it.
A: You need some sort of structure, whether it be time, a time constraint, whatever it is. It’s a viewfinder. In a camera there’s a viewfinder. People don’t understand viewfinders. How many bad pictures do we see in the world? It’s really because, people don’t understand, even though it’s right there, people don’t understand that whatever you put in this is going to be your picture. I think that if you could teach people that…but it’s also temporal, it’s time. There’s more than just this, but this is the visual part of it.
C: And you control the interpretation of something because of it. If you frame the picture this way vs. this way vs. this way, you get a totally different thing than if you did it this way.
K: Well, we’re artists, we get that.
A: No, I bump into artists who don’t know that.
C: I think I would call it one of the most useful things I’ve learned from my design education–the necessity of limitation. You’re searching for a particular answer for something. You do a lot of basing things on limitation. Build a box, build a smaller box, build a smaller box… and whittle things down along…
A: We’re back to the soundtrack… it’s the same thing…paring it down to six songs. It’s so hard to come up with six songs.
K: How do you not pick the same six songs every time?
A: Well… there was a time when I started the dinners it was the same songs. Now, it’s more thematic.
C: So you’re picking songs to fit the theme?
A: Well, no. I love chance also, so sometimes it’s based off of doing a word search on your iTunes library, like “house,” like what songs come up.
C: What are some of the words that you use?
A: “Inside/outside” was the one at Edra Soto’s house… inside/outside, in-between, house and home… but this idea that helps you pare down right away, then you have twelve songs that you have to pare down from.
K: I’m going to read a quote here from the Chicago Tribune. [Laurie Waxman] likens your work to radical feminist art in the 70’s. She says, “Somehow Aguilar has landed, sploosh, in the noisy, messy, silly margins of so much serious radical feminist work.” Do you agree with that?
A: Why not? I’ve heard other people, even people who aren’t Laurie Waxman… there’s this one girl that said to me one time the same thing, that I was making feminist work.
K: Did you set out to do that?
A: Oh, I never set out to make that kind of work, but I do remember, there was an art appreciation teacher… it opened me up to so many things. The Art Institute opened me up to so many things, but even up until the end, I was very resistant to all those things. Very resistant. And it wasn’t until I started teaching Art Appreciation out of SAIC that I started to show this stuff to my students because I loved challenging the students. I loved showing them things that would make them say, “This isn’t art,” you know because that’s the funnest thing to do as a teacher. So, I found myself showing the things that I despised…
K: Like what?
A: Just totally against, like performance… performance art is a big thing. When I was at SAIC there were so many performance artists at the MFA shows, at the BFA shows that I was so annoyed, and I never considered it serious art work, and it wasn’t until I started teaching art appreciation that I really started to gain an appreciation for that myself. I mean it was only because I was trying to show the students things that they would say, “This is not art,” to. One of the things that I bumped into was Mierle’s [Laderman Ukeles] that was part of an art appreciation book that I was reading. She had a baby, and she was changing the baby’s diaper, and she had a moment where she said she wasn’t able to make art because she was a mother, but she said, “This could be art.”
K: …traditionally roles that women undertake as artwork.
A: And I saw that… I was so inspired by that. But there was other people who aren’t feminists… she was one artist who was a feminist artist who inspired me by that. So I think that around three years later, after I saw that video, I was at home, and I had I had a lot of chores in the house that I had to do because it was a new house and it was pretty big, and I had to maintain it, and I had to paint the garage door, and I got a digital camera around the same time, and that’s when I shot the Thanksgiving picture, but also I was documenting all my chores around my house. So mowing the lawn… so I would say that it was kind of inspired by Mierle.
K: The garage door one is kind of an iconic photo. The way that you’re standing there staring at it is kind of a moment. You also said that’s when you stopped painting. So that’s a huge, “OK, I’ve painted this last thing now.”
A: And I titled it, “finished painting.” I finished painting the garage, but I’m also at this point, I’m not going to work in the studio anymore…
K: So, do you paint anymore?
A: I do. I have like 18 huge canvases in the garage. Pretty big… They must be like 9 feet by 4 feet.
C: That’s quite a large empty canvas for somebody who said he’s finished painting.
A: Yeah, that’s a lot. Even when I go back to painting, I think that it’s informed by all this other stuff. I guess I have a framework to make a painting that I didn’t have before. I think that since I’ve been working out in the world now, and it’s so huge, it’s limitless, you know? Now, when I come to a canvas, it seems too easy. I always tell my students, “I can’t believe you can’t make this painting that’s this big. You can’t finish it, what’s wrong with you?” I don’t tell them this, but I think this in my head. “You cannot finish this painting, but yet if I was to tell you, “clean this garage” or “clean your bedroom and organize it,” you could do that, but you can’t handle this… you can’t tackle this painting… but I think of paintings as organizing a room now… if organizing a room is huge, but you could still bring it down to this, why can’t you organize this tiny little canvas?
K: Do you think of that sort of organizing when you’re making the monuments? Do you try to organize a room by just the objects you pick?
A: Yeah, I think the monuments are paintings. I think it’s me going into somebody’s house, and you’d have this experience if you ever invited me over, I go in and you give me a tour, and I look around and see what you have in your house. You give me the tour, and I take in a big view, and then I bring it down to these moments when I organize these monuments.
K: Do you kick the people out?
A: No. They’re there.
K: Has anyone ever stopped you, like, “Don’t take that.”
A: No, because they know. They know what they’re getting into.
C: Sounds like fun. But, it’s still a pretty non-traditional definition of painting, though. So how would you come up against a critic saying, “Those aren’t paintings, though”?
A: I don’t call them paintings.
C: You think of them that way, but you don’t actually express that.
A: I don’t go around telling people they’re paintings. I don’t mind if other people make that connection. There was a guy recently who runs this space in Boston. It turns out he saw my work at the Elmhurst Art Museum, he loved it because it was painting to him. He said, “There’s only a few people that I know of that can do this kind of thing with ambience.” I think anybody can organize stuff, but they’re going to organize their own way. I even told Naomi back when she came over to see the show at Elmhurst… I told her the same thing. Anybody could do this, because one of the monuments I made there was made of somebody’s house–a rich person’s house in Elmhurst. They had a gymnasium in their basement, and I made this monument in the basement, and the husband was out of town, but he came home and he was in the workout room, and he went into the gymnasium, and he saw this monument, and he went back upstairs into the kitchen with his wife and said, “Did you see what the kids made in the gymnasium?” He said, “It’s just so amazing, did you see?” and she said, she started cracking up, and she said, “The kids did not make that,” and she told him the whole story about how an artist came. It’s funny because I feel like anybody can make these things. That’s just the way that I feel.
K: People are able to make them, sure, but…
A: Yeah, it’s the lacking framework. I put a framework on myself to make these things.
K: You did this show, On Making things Matter, a little while ago last year–the one with the objects from Hyde Park. You collected and recorded people talking about them, and at the end of the show, you gave them back to them. I was wondering if you were thinking of doing anything like that again.
A: I think it’s the same thing as the monuments. It’s the same thing I did at Elmhurst. But there, it was more like what you guys saw upstairs where I organized stuff on shelves. They had this library. It was all dark wood. I thought it would be amazing to cover all those shelves with white objects.
K: Well, you added the element of people talking about why those items were significant.
A: I ended up finding out a lot of the history of Hyde Park. I didn’t know about Hyde Park, but I learned about it through doing that project.
K: Incorporating people’s memories of their own objects into your work–I thought that was an interesting addition. Even if you considered the monuments a continuation of that, you don’t have that big…
A: No, even with the monuments… you may not know this, but I do this other element that’s called this conversation. When I do a home visit, say if I were go to your home, I would do a home visit, you would take me through the tour, and I would arrange certain objects of your house to be monuments, maybe six of them–last time I did six monuments in Amy Zahi’s house, and then I took pictures of all of them. But once we were done… we did a sound conversation where we would have a framework… I record ten conversations of 1-2 minutes long on ten tracks. And we just sit, and I’ll ask questions. It’s very open-ended. And I’ll take those ten tracks, and I’ll make a sound piece out of them. So that sound element is always in there, but I think that at Hyde Park, it was a different format altogether. It was the same element but different format. It was objects organized on the shelves, and I had the sound playing out loud, because it was a library, and I wanted people looking at the objects to hear the sound of people talking about Hyde Park.
K: I went to this museum in New York City called the Tenement Museum, and they had one of the apartments in it set up how it was in the 1930s, and they had a recording of the original resident talking about the objects that were in the space. So they had it set up exactly how she would have left it, and they had her talking about the brand of soap she buys. And… it was sort of surreal since she doesn’t live there anymore, and you’re standing in her house seventy years later. That made me think of that experience. There’s an added bit to someone talking about their own thing.
A: Yeah. I like when it’s not so obvious that it’s about the objects. I like when the conversation alludes to the objects without being so obvious. So the thing at Hyde Park, I took off all the information where they talked about objects, and it was just about “Hyde Park Experience,” because I wanted “Hyde Park Experience” and history to work together with all these objects so that people would make their own connections with them, and that’s what I ended up doing. I think I do the same thing with the sound. Even with Amy, I haven’t started working on her sound piece, but I’ve already picked out her monuments. I’ve already posted them on Facebook.
K: So you pick one from each house visit that goes on your portfolio?
A: Well, this time I picked about six of them, and I put them all on Facebook, and I’ll just let them sit for a while. I’ll see how people react to them. If somebody ever commissioned me, I would pick one, and I would say, “This is the one that I think you should print.” If someone were to commission me, I would pare it down to one. And also on my website, it tends to be one that represents that visit. Because in the end… like six years down the road, you can see more clearly which one epitomizes the time that you have with those people, but sometimes it takes time to figure that out. It’s the same thing as the song thing… It takes time to figure out which one you want to stand for that time, which is what a monument does, right? It stands for a moment. It stands for a moment, and sometimes when you’re in the thick of a moment, you can’t pare that down.
K: Tell us about your upcoming MCA show.
A: It’s called Homebodies. Naomi Beckwith curated it. It goes from the end of June through October. So that’s a huge group show. A lot of people… and Theaster Gates is in the show.
K: So the only part of it that isn’t yours will be Edra [Soto]’s bit of it?
A: No, they invited me to do this thing, but I invited other artists to perform on different parts. I proposed that I would bring in these objects that would be platforms for the audience or the visitors of the museum to interact with, but also for other artists to perform on top of. So Edra was of course a clear decision.
K: Did you ask specifically, “Make your cake,” or did you just ask her to participate?
A: I was thinking about who I would want to do something on that dining room table, and I thought about all these artists. I thought about artists who made food, but in the end, Edra was the clear choice. I think it needed to be something simple. So I did propose for her to do the cakes, but I told Edra, “Don’t feel tied to do the cakes at all, you can do whatever you want.” One of the other reasons why I invited Edra to do it is because I brought her in as a visiting artist to Harold Washington College. I don’t know what year that was. Maybe three or four or five years ago tops. And when I had her in as a visiting artist, it was the same time she was having her 12 x 12 show at the MCA, and she did this workshop with my students where she made us all draw portraits of her fused with a gorilla. And she incorporated those portraits that we did, including one of mine, and that was before I was showing at all. I wasn’t showing as an artist back then, but she included all of our work into the show, and I thought that it was such an amazing generous act to show all these people as part of her show, rather than just show her work. I admired it a lot. I admired, because it was most of her work, but she found a way to bring in other artists to be part of this installation. A lot of them were my students, and myself, I was one of them too.
C: I think you share a certain aspect of place and placement. I don’t know if you can articulate… like a particular discourse in art-making. You and she seem to have a similar goal in mind when it comes to making a place with a particular placement of things–a simple action that is going to create this new prescribed result that’s more than the sum of its parts. Did you ever feel some kind of correlation for that?
A: No, I think it’s there. I think the simple way to define it would be our Latino roots.
C: You think that was it?
A: That’s part of it, of course. Mine comes from the way my mother arranges things.
K: I remember reading that story–you said something about after a storm… I think you should tell this story.
A: Yeah. In Cicero, we lived in a suburb–the first suburb outside of Chicago, and one summer our house got struck by lightning. I remember when it happened, we were out playing baseball in front, and everyone was pointing to the top of the house, and I remember my mom running out crying. But the main thing is that she took all of the insurance money that we got from the top floor of our house burning down, and she rehabbed the top floor by herself. My mom’s resourcefulness… It’s her way of arranging things… I don’t say this much, but I think there’s a bit connection between the monuments that I make, and say, Day of the Dead arrangements. I think they’re not that different from that. Mine are more formal. They’re stripped of all the subject matter… partially why I call them monuments.
K: I think that’s a really fitting name, honestly.
A: It just happens, actually. It just came through time…
K: How many did you make before you said, “Oh, I’ve been making monuments.”
A: The one downstairs was the first one–the one with the folding chair with the tape going through it. That was the one that was officially the first one to be called a domestic monument.
C: What would be your ideal exhibition space? We talked about your ideal work space, considering you go into other people’s homes. Seems pretty ideal considering the type of work you do.
K: I kind of want the Art Institute to let you take a bunch of their works and stack them up. Just take this Picasso…
A: That’s what we want as artists. I think we follow the same cycle in a strange way. We want to be outside of those spaces making stuff, but eventually, we want to take the stuff that we make outside of those spaces into those spaces in order to enliven those spaces. But then the spaces end up eating up the work. I shouldn’t say ‘we,’ but I don’t like those spaces. Those spaces are so far removed from reality. So, I think that what I desire is to make those spaces more like these spaces, which is the home space.
C: It’s funny that you have to do this reductive hypersensitive approach to “outdoor world” in opposition to a gallery or museum. You have to hyper-formalize it in order to get it into a museum space. How do you think that translation process is working for you?
A: Well, yeah, that’s what happens. It’s taking stuff that doesn’t belong in the museum but arranging it. It’s sort of tricking people… that’s what I did at Elmhurst. I was able to show something inside of the Mies van der Roh house. What I did there was show a monument I had made from stuff from my house, and I showed it at Elmhurst, and I thought it was funny. I presented it inside the Mies van der Roh house, and they present the Mies van der Roh house in a very museum-like way. So what I did was take these objects… every day objects, like a laundry basket that kind of cracked in the corner, and I organized it in this impeccable way so that people would almost be confused to say, “This looks like it belongs here.” I don’t normally put things on a pedestal, but there I put it on a pedestal because I thought that confusion was funny… that people would look at it and consider it high art, even though it was just like stuff that I bought here and there throughout the years.
C: I like the idea of translating spaces into ones that they don’t belong. Seeing that difference is always slightly unsettling considering all of the things that a museum or an institution does to make it a separate place.
A: And I guess that’s what I’m doing. When they commissioned me to make this thing at the MCA, the education and events department, I was just thinking for a while, “What am I going to do there?” I just thought that made the most sense, to bring in different stations for people to interact with, but these stations would be also home stations, so a table, a bed… and the other thing is the table would be converted into a ping-pong table. So, people can play ping-pong on this table, and then people can lay on the bed and read all the books about the exhibitions. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the bed. It pared down to covering it with fur. It just made sense to me. It’s not too different than that really famous art history piece with the cup with fur on it. But fur kind of belongs on the bed because you see beds with fur sometimes, but I’m wrapping the mattress in fur rather than just having a cover. I’m having my mother sew the fur around the mattress so that it seems like just a furry mattress. And then I’ll have furry pillows.
C: You mentioned that earlier tonight and you talked about it now, and I think, “Wow, it’s so indulgent.” You know, you get a furry bedspread on a bed… it’s luxurious, but it gets past that when you cover the whole thing. What do you think about indulgence in your work?
A: Well, this furniture belongs to my mother, first of all… so these were choices made by my mother, and she always makes these choices. She always buys furniture like this. We buy more pared down furniture, right?
K: More modern, you mean?
A: …and she buys this more indulgent furniture. And this kind of stuff, this kind of furniture… you would never see this kind of stuff enter the art museum, right? Even the MCA, all the stuff they have for people to sit on, it’s really clean and functional…
K: Well, it’s supposed to be invisible, and just be.
A: So, that’s the reason why. I think that when I make these monuments, I feel that I sort of work with whatever people have in their homes, and it’s usually not art things. It’s usually not designed stuff. And it becomes acceptable, and also through my moves, through my choices, I can convert it to being art stuff, so I think that that indulgence comes from my mother’s choices. I wanted it to feel like it didn’t belong. I think that sort of indulgence usually does not belong in the museum setting. That kind of really tacky… with many pillows on top of the bed. You wouldn’t normally see that in a museum setting.
M: I was just listening to your daughter talk about how she creates, and I have this impression that this is a household that creates, and I was wondering what kind of guidance do they have?
A: They didn’t have any. I didn’t teach them art at all. I didn’t teach them things in a very tutorial way. I never did that with them. But I still see that she picked up a lot of the ways that I think about things. Through my non-teaching, I feel like I’ve taught… well, I see it a lot through her… I guess I can see it through my other daughter as well, they’ve picked up a lot of the things that I do.
M: What are some of the things that you notice that are similar?
A: I think that one of the things she does all the time, she doesn’t like when things don’t have meaning or reason for being. She likes them really to come… really form follows function. She doesn’t like decorative things that don’t belong. She likes things that are… One of the things she does all the time, she’s been doing it all the time recently is she records in the thick of things. She doesn’t go away to record away in her bedroom. Everything she records, she records when everybody’s… you gotta hear her songs… you always hear the noises of us in the music.
M: She was talking about how someone was using a blender [in the background], and she thought about taking it out, but then she thought, “It was there, and maybe it was meant to be there.”
A: Yeah, and that’s the clearest example that I could show. That’s talking about both the things I was just talking about right now… things should be there if they were really there when they were happening, and they shouldn’t be there if they weren’t. Otherwise, it’s then decoration. We had an artist from Kansas City here, his name is James Woodfield, and he was here as a visiting artist, and he stayed at our house. And my wife and him were talking about politics for the longest time, and they were having a really good discussion. And she said at the end, and it was around voting time, and she said, “I feel socially irresponsible because I just don’t know more about this or I don’t vote.” He was here for a couple of days, and he said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “How can you feel socially irresponsible, yet run your house the way that you do?” And I might have not been in this discussion, but I heard when he said that, and I was so impacted by it, this idea that how you run your household is how you most impact society. Not the words you say or your beliefs, but really what you do within the home. I think that that for me is my big artwork, this little square house. Everything that happens in here is the artwork. That’s the thing that is impactful to people, and that’s the thing I try to share with people. It takes objects to share that… concrete objects. In the art world, you have to show an object, but hopefully, that object translates all of this experience. I think that’s why I do the dinners, because the dinners are a clear way to kind of bringing that into the gallery setting or into the art world.
C: The space for consideration of things.
A: I see those things formally, but the person sees those things in a very personal way. They chose those things. Somehow they brought those things into their house. Whether it was a gift or them going to the thrift store or going to Target, they brought those things in there, and I think when you arrange three, four, or five things, it’s this Target plus someone giving it to you, plus this… all brought into one. It’s like a holistic portrait of you.
K: I just like that sentiment, and when I first heard about your work, I was like, “Wait, he just stacks things together? I don’t understand.” Now that I have more of a grasp of what’s going on, I actually like that. I feel like it should be the new above-the-fireplace portrait–your monument photo.