It would be a bit facetious to call Rubén Aguirre, the maker of sprawling abstract murals, a graffiti artist. It may be where he got his start, but as a new exhibition, on view at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago through July 24th, shows that was just the beginning.
After first encountering graffiti art in high school in the mid-’90s, Aguirre took to it quickly. “I really latched on to it—that activity, that sport,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Chicago, walking distance from the museum. “Graffiti played a big part in my art making, because it was accessible to me I could learn and I could participate very fast.”
As he matured into his late 20s, though, he began to feel constrained by that mode. “I felt like I had done everything that I could possibly think of with that traditional format,” Aguirre said.
He decided that by pursuing a more “experimental” approach he could push it to its limits. “Graffiti is so traditional that if you start to take apart that formula even a little bit it doesn’t look like graffiti as much,” he said. He started out by painting a large wall in Chicago that took the forms of graffiti but abstracted it by omitting any text. When it received positive feedback, he never looked back.
And now in his 40s, Aguirre has entered yet another phase in his art-making, albeit a traditional one: maintaining a studio practice. The works on view at the National Museum of Mexican Art— careful, abstracted landscapes in which natural woodgrain peaks through—represent this shift, where the sense of movement from Aguirre’s early works continues to shine but in highly controlled forms.
“I’m not particularly pursuing the route of an academic artist trying to show in institutions,” Aguirre said, “but I’m honored to be acknowledged in this way.”
Dan Ramirez, an artist and the exhibition’s curator, likened them to the legacy of Minimalist art. “It’s very abstract, very lyrical, just formally incredibly beautiful,” he said.
For Ramierz, Aguirre’s work also represents an interesting shift in the history of Mexican and Mexican American mural making. “I grew up in the Latino areas of Chicago, so many of the murals I grew up with were almost always politically oriented,” Ramirez said. “Ruben’s aren’t.”
The murals of his youth, Ramirez explained, helped him “process how the world was unfolding around my community,” whereas Aguirre’s murals are “an opportunity to see and experience something different.”
The admiration is mutual. Aguirre first saw Ramirez’s work at the National Museum of Mexican Art and ever since, Ramirez’s art has been a touchstone for Aguirre. The two eventually met at an exhibition opening at the National Museum of Mexican Art through its chief curator, Cesáreo Moreno, and the idea of showing Aguirre’s art, curated by Ramirez, was born. “I’ve been looking at that space for a long, long time—it almost feels like home,” Aguirre said.
Though the pandemic put the exhibition’s planning on pause, it catalyzed Aguirre to search for a new way of making his work. When the pandemic began, he too put a pause on his art-making.
“When I did get back to it,” he said, “everything was on lockdown, so the way I went about making art had to change.” He sought out nature, hiking in the forest preserves throughout Cook County. “That become my main stimulus, [and] sparked the next step for my art making,” he added. “Connecting with nature, the body and the Earth as one: this theme of connectedness became the focal point of my paintings.”
Another adjustment to Aguirre’s studio practice came in the form of planning out his canvases as opposed to being more freeform with it. But, at its core, his art still maintains its roots in graffiti. “Generally my forms come from alphabet abstraction forms,” he said. “There’s generations to those forms: They start as text, they get abstracted a little bit into graffiti, and then those forms get deconstructed into the forms that I use now. Using that language that I already have, I construct what I see.”