Stories from the Inside

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Big Blue Suit: An Interview with Oscar Chavez

Oscar Chavez, Gallery 400’s current Lobby Competition winner, is a BFA student in the School of Art and Art History at UIC. In his performance, Big Blue Suit the artist utilized his body to produce a moving public installation. Painting his body bright pink and donning an oversized blue suit with a face-obscuring headpiece, he strolled around UIC’s campus. Cutting pieces of his clothing off as he walked, Chavez left physical remnants as he went.

Ten minutes into the performance it was abruptly interrupted by campus police who had been contacted by concerned students. The incident not only captured the attention of the student body, but also local news outlets such as DNAinfo, NBC, and ABC.

I spoke with Chavez to discuss his intent with the performance, how students on campus reacted to it, and how national current events possibly triggered a police response.

You can see more of Chavez’s work here:

Learn more about the Lobby competition here:

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Oscar Chavez, Big Blue Suit, 2016, performance documentation. 

Before getting into your work, tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What’s your major? What is one phrase that describes you as a person?

I am a studio arts major, so I’ve been focusing on painting, but I have also been focusing on performance art. The cool thing about UIC is that you can mix a whole bunch of different mediums, so I’ve just been working on the two a lot. You can describe me as perpetually optimistic.

I was researching your Big Blue Suit performance, and was pleased to see that your piece turned into a social media sensation. What brought you the idea to walk around UIC’s campus in a big blue suit and a mask of flowers?

So I was in a class last semester that was really studio based and everyone got to work in whatever medium they wanted. It was just facilitated by the professor, he talked us through it. So I focused on performance that whole semester, I’ve been making a few performances throughout the year and it has just been a constant type of work. I was focusing on works that kind of mix the public and the private audience and how that ties into painting. This piece specifically was one of my final pieces at UIC, so I was interested in using the campus as a public sphere, since I have already used public spaces before. So all of that came through, I left a small part of myself throughout campus and used the students as part of the audience.

Why do you like mixing the public and the private in your work?

My performance background comes from research of feminist performances in the 70s , in the time that correlated with a lot of social movements where people were really in control of their bodies in public spaces. That's why it’s interesting to me; I have never felt comfortable in doing regular performance art where there is a bunch of people viewing, because it almost feels contrived in an art space. So I think a lot of times creating work I like , especially with performances,  I like to take them outside so that they exist in a certain space and time. The context of my body is completely outside of an art context, so anyone who interprets it and sees it gets whatever view they want from it, because they don’t know that I’m doing an art piece, I’m just a stranger.

As I was reading in an article in DNAinfo, I saw that you were arrested after calls were made to the campus police. Besides those reactions, what other reactions did you receive when you were walking around campus? Did you get the ones you expected?

I always do work and don’t expect anything from people and see what happens. I had some positive reactions, for the 10 minutes that I was doing it. Someone asked to take my picture, people were high-fiving me, they were relatively interested. Other than that I couldn’t really see much because I had that mask on, so I couldn’t really engage with people’s reactions that much.

I found it interesting that you didn’t just walk around, you were also leaving pieces of fabric behind as you were cutting them off with a pair of scissors. What was the intent behind that action?

Under the suit, my body was painted pink, so as I cut off a piece more and more, my body was more exposed to the larger anonymous student body. The feeling of going across campus is really weird because we don’t ever really have classes over there, especially if you’re just in the art program, so the whole UIC student body seems really foreign to me and the idea of being super vulnerable to a bigger group like that was really interesting.

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Oscar Chavez, Big Blue Suit, 2016, performance documentation. 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this incident occurred in the middle of all the clown sightings. Do you think your piece would have been as effective if the clown sightings were not occurring?

If all of that did not coincide with the clown sightings, then I would have had a completed piece, without much infiltration from the public. I still think it would’ve been successful, the life of the piece itself would’ve been very different because I think there wouldn’t have been such a large public audience.

You mentioned before that your performance piece was inspired by Dali’s painting A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano. Why did you choose this specific piece as your inspiration? Why the woman in the back of the painting? Why not the child or even the chemist?

Just visually I was looking for a headpiece. The big blue suit was painted blue, my body was painted pink, which is a very similar color scheme that I use in a lot of my work. I did want a headpiece so I wouldn’t make direct eye contact with people, I like using the body as an object, and a lot of times covering the face makes the body something that is not very recognizable. So I always loved that painting, since I always thought that figure looked like Kim Kardashian, which is super funny to me, so I thought the flower headpiece was a beautiful piece so I made it my own.

As I said before, this piece brought a lot of attention to UIC’s campus. And as people say, no publicity is bad publicity, even though you were arrested and handcuffed. My question is, did this bring more attention to your artwork? To you as an artist?

I think definitely. I don’t think it would've been the same if what had happened didn’t happen. I think the engagement of the public became so important. I think people asking more questions is what my pieces really are. What exactly are the questions I’m asking and what happens when I actually do these things. 

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Oscar Chavez, Big Blue Suit, 2016, performance documentation.