Artist Marcos Raya sits alongside elements of his installation art in his McKinley Park neighborhood studio.

Marcos Raya Moves to McKinley Park

Published March 16, 2018

Renowned Chicago artist Marcos Raya has relocated his estudio to McKinley Park after decades of working from the Pilsen neighborhood. Raya, who is well-known for his visual art, his murals in Pilsen and his longtime art and activism, said rising prices were a key consideration for making the move.

"Mostly it was rents going up," he said. "I was also a little tired of the space."

Business Grows Here - Space - Resources - Community

Business Grows Here - Space - Resources - Community

Raya's new roost rests inside the 36Squared Business Incubator at 3636 S. Iron St. alongside other small businesses taking advantage of the building's status as a Small Business Development Center.

Raya's space includes both storage and his primary studio, an etalier-like, white-painted loft filled with natural light and the cruft of the creative process: elements of Raya's installation art, large-format works in progress, comfortable spots for contemplation and a study for Raya's latest mural work: a full-painted front for Harbee Liquor & Tavern at 1345 W. 18th St. in Pilsen.

Marcos Raya Estudio harbee commission working 20180308 forweb
Raya works on concept art for his Harbee mural commission.

"I call it my Anti Taco Art," Raya said of the Harbee commission, a statement against contemporary mural artists' tendency to paint colorful pablum devoid of meaning, purpose, or message. "We don’t have to paint pyramids or Aztecs," he said. "I'm totally disgusted with that stuff."

"A lot of the murals that are being painted today don’t mean anything," he said. "They won’t stand long."

Raya's mural artwork has consistently focused on political and social issues, starting from his earliest work in Pilsen, including on the walls of the legendary Casa Aztlán and nearby locations such as 18th and Western, home to The Fallen Dictator, a 1980 mural element about the fall of Nicaraguan dictator Anastacio Somoza.

Raya said that his mural work never was about making money, but instead inspiring social change. "In some areas, a mural can make magic," he said.

Still, the highly political nature of Raya's work results in it sometimes looking for a home: Raya's major 1997 painting Cataclysm, which juxtaposes citizens fighting against the rapacious abuses of globalism, has gone wanting for a permanent home in a museum or collection, despite the opportunity for it to be received as a donation. "No one would take it," he said.

Raya said he continues other ongoing themes through his art, such as the integration of technology with humanity, as seen in many of his works that portray modern medicine. "I admire the technology they use to save lives," he said. "It's like magic."

Raya's focus on this "duality of technology" is informed by his childhood love for classic science fiction movies and his early career exposure to the artwork of anti-war surrealists such as George Grosz. "By the time we get rid of the dualities, it will be an advanced society, but a lot of people will disappear," he said. "That's where it gets scary."

The 2016 move from Pilsen to McKinley Park has been bittersweet, Raya said. "I do feel a little sad that I’m losing my neighborhood." However, a new area brings a fresh perspective, especially since he knew Pilsen so well he could walk it blindfolded, he said.

For many years, Raya sited his workspace at West 19th and South Carpenter streets, and then more recently at West 22nd and South Halsted streets. "They used to call it the Arts District. I call it the Dead District" because property owners won't enable a thriving commercial area by opening up spaces to a wider variety of businesses, he said.

"I didn't want to stay in Pilsen because there is no money," Raya said. Also, his current work style suits his McKinley Park location: "I'm old school. I like solitude," he said. "I don't party much anymore."

Raya said anyone who wishes to see him "in action" should swing by Harbee Liquor & Tavern this June to view the mural being painted on the building.

Raya will also be featured in the Arte Diseño Xhicágo group show at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St., Chicago, with an opening reception set for 6 p.m. on Friday, March 23, 2018.

Starting this summer, the Art of Illinois group show, curated by Wendy Greenhouse, will feature Raya's artwork at the Governor's Mansion in Springfield, Illinois. This show will run from July 14 through the end of 2018. 

Marcos Raya Estudio artwork in progress 20180308 forwebRaya stands in front of one of his large works in progress, a work examining ongoing themes tied to medicine and technology.

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