Roman Villarreal shapes the neighborhood

There’s conflict, grief, helplessness, loss, and also joy, camaraderie, and loyalty that inhabit artist Roman Villarreal’s south-side neighborhood and, consequently, the work he’s made there. All of this is on display in his first retrospective, “South Chicago Legacies,” at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.  

Villarreal grew up in the Bush neighborhood on the southeast side, among steelworkers, of which he was one, and gang members, of which he was also one. He started his art practice in the army during the Vietnam War by making drawings and selling them to fellow soldiers. Villarreal served his term without getting deployed to Vietnam, a fate that few men in his community shared. In fact, his parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is believed to have suffered the highest per capita death rate of men sent to war during that era. This was the first of two devastations that would mark his community worse off; the second was the closure of the steel mills.

In the years following the war, Villarreal started sculpting what he saw on the streets out of material he salvaged. In the late 1970s, he constructed The Rainbow Lounge, the oldest piece on display at Intuit. It’s a three-dimensional wooden panel painted in bright acrylics that depicts a band performing at the eponymous hangout. The women’s lips flash bright red lipstick, the men’s carry heavy handlebar mustaches. It’s warm and jovial. As Villarreal told me, “You have to show the good and the bad.”

The decade that followed The Rainbow Lounge brought national tragedy, and many of Villareal’s 1980s works chosen for display deal straight-forwardly with drug abuse, addiction, and a community in mourning. Side-by-side paintings They Die On The Throne and Habits show a man with a needle in his hand and a woman with a bottle to her lips, respectively. Though to reduce these paintings to drug awareness PSAs would be a huge disservice. They imbue the space with its most glaring displays of color—colors were associated with gangs and were very important to the community, Villarreal told me—and showcase his skill with acrylics.

“The way I see it, we were this middle-class neighborhood while the steel mills were open,” he says. “Then came the closures and the downfall. So now we have this whole generation that grew up during a time when all they saw was a middle-class neighborhood falling through the cracks—it hasn’t been the same since.” Villarreal bore witness to it all: “Vietnam, death, fatherhood, closures, and the street art movement…” he says, skimming through a half-century’s worth of history in a few seconds. He consolidates it all as naturally as he might give his address. He knows the stories well because he’s spent his life telling them. 

Roman Villarreal (American, b. 1950). The Parade, early 2000s. Acrylic on foam, 12 x 6 x 35 in. Courtesy of the Villarreal Family. Credit: Joseph “Fugie” Almanza

“I tell people I’m an urban anthropologist,” he says. “All I’m doing, really, is showing you my experiences from the 80s, 90s, [and so on]. I have to make sure there’s an even balance. I don’t only want to show bad, because it’s not only bad.” A painting from the 1990s, Porch, shows his signature blocky figures—friends, kids, pets—gathered on the front steps of a house, drinking beer, listening to music, and enjoying the weather. He adds: “They’re all wearing gang sweaters.” Villarreal lived on a block called “the beehive” where a lot of Latin Kings, the gang he belonged to, also lived. All summer they got together on porches before “the bloody 90s,” as he puts it. “Then we all moved to the backyards.” The painting itself holds all of these aspects: the love, the warmth, the moment, as well as the loss, the violence, the change. 

Porch wasn’t, in fact, meant to be viewed. It was a sketch for a clay piece. Of course, things don’t always work out as planned. An alabaster sculpture called Dogs (2019) started out as a lion and her cubs. He hadn’t even finished it when Intuit’s exhibition curator Alison Amick decided they wanted it in the show. “You never know what people are going to see in your work,” he says and seems genuinely interested in the various ways that the show could have played out. 

Intuit is dedicated to outsider art, but the museum has the hardwood floors and white walls of any West Town gallery. When the exhibition opened in June of this year, Villarreal says he was “really, really surprised to see it all together in that space.” Villarreal was used to seeing his work in group shows or outdoors (his two most well-known sculptures, a mysterious mermaid at 41st street beach and a steelworker and his family at Steelworkers Park, live in public spaces). 

Villarreal left the steel mills in the late 1980s and has been making art full-time ever since. He proudly identifies as an outsider artist; his auto-didacticism granted him a freedom that he doubts he’d have found by studying art in an institution. He attempts to describe the freedom that he feels when he’s working, fumbling around with the words before settling on: “There’s nothing as beautiful as a blank canvas.” He works almost every day, sketching and painting when it’s cold, sculpting when it’s warm. Between his three studios, he has 900 works. 

There are drawbacks to his outsider position, though. Namely, what happens to the art after the show closes or, ultimately, once the artist dies. There aren’t established places for preservation in the outsider art world, let alone continued sales. “We don’t have a traditional outlet, there’s a lot to learn from trial and error. Technique, how to promote work, how to network. But we’ll learn to survive,” he says. And isn’t that the truth. 

“Roman Villarreal: South Chicago Legacies” Through 1/8/23: Thu-Sun 11 AM-6 PM, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee, (312) 624-9487,


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