The Sauna School

The high-spirited ArTrujillo Studio Gallery springs up from a once-seedy cellar on Lake Street

The International Bazaar, located on a busy corner on Lake Street a block east of Interstate 35W, hides a dirty little secret in its basement. Outwardly, the complex of twin two-story brown-brick buildings is fairly unexceptional. Decorated with a smart green awning, the Bazaar hosts a number of shops doing brisk business on a Friday afternoon. In one building, several people mill about the Photo Estudio Chicago, or peek in the windows at a hat and boot shop advertising "Texanos y sombreros." In the second, a complex of small vendors sell sundry items--household goods, piñatas, spangled clothing, saints candles, "botanicas," music, gold jewelry--and families wander through the narrow aisles as Rosalinda flitters on the screen of the small TV behind the counters.

But back to the secret--which is not the "sauna" that once operated out of the basement of this edifice. The secret hidden in the basement of the International Bazaar is a bit messier than that, though a mite more legitimate, and open to wholesome visitors. A wide stairwell right in the middle of the booths of trinkets and sundry goods leads down into the basement space, where Alejandro Trujillo has set up, of all things, his ArTrujillo Studio Gallery.

A visit to ArTrujillo is a kind of subterranean discovery. From the halls of commerce in the bazaar, you descend into a sudden explosion of light and color--an archaeologist stumbling upon a sealed Egyptian tomb. Wild jazz music plays over a stereo system. Self-possessed people walk about and apply themselves to various tasks. Footsteps creak across the low ceiling overhead.

Trujillo greets visitors warmly: "How do you like the space?" He is in his early 30s, has a warm, friendly round face and dark, uncombed hair. He is quick to mention, as if to put things in perspective, that the building used to be "a whorehouse," and he gives some quick data before starting a tour. He first rented an upstairs studio from the owner of the International Bazaar a few years ago, after he was commissioned to paint a mural on the building's outer wall as part of its reconstruction. Then, last year, Trujillo asked the owner if he could move into the larger basement space, offering to clean up the area in return for its use. The cleanup, begun in May 2000, was completed by June, and by August ArTrujillo had its first opening. Now, his artistic co-op is booming modestly--there are 17 members in all, and 7 of them share the studio.

A quick survey of the Studio Gallery reveals a surprisingly large space, 3,500 square feet in all, partitioned by particleboard walls to make three or four separate galleries. Along the concrete floors and cinderblock walls are brightly painted figures, blocks of color, and swirling lines.

"For us, even the floor is a canvas," Trujillo says, waving his hand. "Every month the space is completely different. We break it apart and repaint it. Here we do everything ourselves. This chair, we found in the street. Everybody is an artist here. Freedom, life, beauty...we are all trying to create that."

Paintings and drawings of various sorts hang in each partitioned segment of the room. Mostly they are inexpertly done, though here and there you can find a touch of craft or an image of some interest. Taken in sum, these pieces display lots of vibrant colors, expressionistic brushstrokes, abstracted figures, and surrealistic dream images. And, perhaps in keeping with the spirit of the gallery's former occupant, you come across erotic drawings of the rawest kind.

One area, tucked back around the corner from the stairway, is a gallery for solo exhibitions. Currently on display are works by Ray Roybal, a Chicano activist and political cartoonist for such local newspapers as Latino Midwest and Insight. Called "Santeros," the show consists of 30-odd small devotional icons, so crudely rendered that they look old and faded with time. They are flat-footed in their religious aesthetic--painted on rough burlap surfaces in intense church reds, cerulean blues, and stained-glass yellows and greens, and given titles such as "Saint Veronica con el Divino Rostro" and "Orpheo." This last, on closer look, is revealed to be a small figure dressed in armor and holding a sword, fighting a serpent that winds around his legs. On the table, meanwhile, rests a stack of original political cartoons by the artist--simple line drawings engaging such hot-button issues as race, AIDS, the drug war, and so on.

Out in the main part of the gallery, the scent of fresh paint is everywhere, as there are no windows and seemingly scant ventilation. The sickly bitter-chemical smell of spray-paint mixes with the sweet smell of latex house paint. Following the scent takes one to yet another section of the room, which spills over with the implements of the trade: brushes, easels, cans of paint. Several eye-catching works are stacked here and there--a batch of vaguely Pollockesque paintings done in a sophisticated palette of Day-Glo colors; a series of mostly ocean-blue paintings that are filled with hairy brushstrokes of rainbow-colored amoebas, which appear to float as if lit up by phosphorus; a handful of images of militaristic violence painted in a naive style. How is it that so many different schools of work could be springing up from this sprawling cellar? What holds this collection of artists together?

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