Constructing and Deconstructing Walls
by Juan Chávez, Olivia Gude, John Pitman Weber, and Bernard Williams



The first version of this article appeared in the Chicago Public Art Group Newsmagazine, Volume 5, Number 1, Summer 1998: Constructing and Deconstructing Walls.
Edited by Olivia Gude. Compiled by Jeff Huebner.

Since the early days of the community mural movement, many artists have used group methods of design. Images, found or specially created, are gathered and literally collaged onto a large paper. Thus the murals often begin, not as sketches that are gradually developed, but as a richly varied conglomeration of images contributed by individuals. The final painted interpretation of these mural designs varies widely. Some artists have worked to achieve a unified style, harmonizing the individual elements. In recent years, many Chicago muralists have deliberately emphasized the eclectic origins of their compositions, creating a more disjunctive, collage-like approach to designing walls.

Why this interest in working with a uniquely 20th-21st-century art form that departs from–even subverts–the tradition of painting narrative murals? CPAG artists who have designed and painted such murals say that a collage aesthetic in murals both lends itself to collaborative practices and to the exploration of communities’ complexity and heterogeneity. The quickness and fragmentation of collage, once a radical modern artistic practice, has become the everyday condition of life in postmodern, image-saturated times.

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Collage Aesthetics

Juan Chavez: A collaboration is a collage in itself. Whether you’re collaborating with a community, with artists, or with kids—they’re all different elements of the collage. The mural itself is just another part, another cut-out of the larger picture. A collage is also representative of living in a city, especially this city, which is like a big collage.

I think collage murals can be narrative because they tell a lot and say a lot. You can see that in Fellows & Others. We designed mostly by cutting each others’ drawings up, though we almost had no option because of the narrow spaces and all the windows.

Collage was the reasonable and obvious choice. Collage is the way I think, the way I live—the way things exist for me.

Collage murals do represent the community itself. Just as one of the images can be taken out and could exist on its own. You could take out a person, a family, one part of the community; place it somewhere else; and it could exist on its own, too.

Olivia Gude:Fellows & Others makes use of photorealistic images, diagrams, text, kids’ drawings, silhouettes, and comic book-like imagery to illustrate the theme of who is designated a “fellow” and who an “other” in the society. With text drawn from discussions with residents and youth artists, the work represents the many individual voices that make up Bridgeport, and reflects a commitment toward building a multiracial community.

Along with the realism of the narrative mural tradition--the larger-than-life portrayal of people so that individual faces become representative of the entire community—Fellows & Others references the populist imagery of science fiction. The questions “Who is an Other?” and “What seems alien to us?” are contextualized both in the notions of immigration and in outer space. For example, there’s a weird “Culture Machine” that draws on Mad Max-type of imagery, and is made up of a bricolage of objects to show how difference and racial stereotypes are culturally constructed





First, there were the murals of protest. Then there were the murals of social identity, of specific cultures, and of a multicultural society. Now, perhaps the movement has entered a “deconstructionist” phase. Murals still address the issue of community, but at the same time that they affirm community they can also start to question how that notion of community is constructed in culture. Who does it include? Who is excluded?

A collage-like style works because instead of trying to create a seamless monolithic whole, you’re showing that community is heterogeneous and multi-voiced. Any image that purports to tell truths about community, however contingent, needs to foreground the sense of complexity, layering, and disjuncture. 

The irony of the collage aesthetic in murals is that instead of quickly pasting in a found image as one would in an actual collage, the artists spend hours of laborious painting, re-creating fragments of naturalistic images.

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Collage and Collaboration

Bernard Williams: To create Urban World at the Crossroads, John Weber and I interviewed West Humboldt Park residents, leaders, and activists and created a dynamic visual statement with strong color and pattern that deals with issues related to family, culture, education, and community development.

In this mural, I wanted to feature the look of cut-paper collage, which I think is different from some collage techniques within other murals, and even within some of my own murals. In designing Urban World, we literally used the technique of cutting paper and placing things, fragments of things.

The ultimate collagist was Romare Bearden, and his process is very evident in his final product. I’m not aware of that kind of collage--the cut-paper technique--used in very many murals, and I was wiling to make it more obvious in Urban World. Fragmentation is part the look of many murals, but it’s not a collage look in the tradition of Bearden.

John Weber: The history of using the method of collage for group composition in the community mural movement doesn’t go back to the Chicago Mural Group; it goes back to the Cityarts Workshop in New York. They were using cut-out traced projections--reducing them, blowing them up, and arranging them with kids--moving fragments around to get at a composition. In Chicago, we had methods that emphasized the overall compositional structure. For us, the structural concept was primary--it wasn’t like, “Let’s arrange these pieces.” The scale of the buildings is different here, and we usually worked with the whole wall.

When we did Urban World, Bernard and I were conscious of the Miesian horizontal and vertical grids of the wall at Orr.  We could’ve decided to work against that, but we decided to go with the grid--so in a way it was typical of the Chicago School of muralmaking. Both of us had been working with grids in our own art, so it was fortuitous.

In the postmodern era, artists, some more consciously than others, use collage as a way to deny the coherence of narrative and to bring forward themes of heterogeneity. The nature of our experience is that we’re immersed in simultaneity, several different media at once. Our understanding of the world has to do with the confrontation of different visual languages. This confrontation of simultaneity, on the face of it, has no coherence. In murals, you’re trying to create coherence using imagery on different levels.

That’s the circumstance of our work and the culture of our time: we’re striving for coherence, but denying one single narrative.

Juan Chávez has been a leader in extending the practice of mural making into three dimensions, creating complicated, layered assemblage murals. In Hands, the artist and high school students painted constructions of wood and discarded objects from Prosser High School’s vocational shops.

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