It is not uncommon to read an article or overhear a conversation about the “transformative power” of art. Many artists themselves (well known and undiscovered alike) speak of improving the surrounding world with the creation and distribution of their art.
Durango Mendoza is not one of them.
“I don’t say that my stuff is profound,” Mendoza said. “I’m not going to change the world with anything that I do. I just think it might be interesting.”
However, this stance doesn’t imply that Mendoza doesn’t believe in the possibility of such changes – in fact, the opposite proves true. The artist, whose solo exhibition “In Cahoots: The Capture of Choice, Change, and Coincidence” opens at the University YMCA on January 22, has devoted his life to bettering the world he finds himself in, whatever and wherever that world might be.
“Like a lot of artists, I was influenced very early on by art while I was growing up out in the country of Oklahoma,” Mendoza said. “I found myself interested in finding connections or a contrast between two pieces… I liked that kind of thing.”
After graduating from high school in Missouri, Mendoza began to pursue his early artistic inclinations, receiving a degree in English/Creative Writing and spending a few years in art school. However, Mendoza’s path was altered when he was hired as a childcare worker for the Jewish Children’s Bureau in Chicago.
“After that, I got interested in social work,” he said. “I remember feeling like I should do something beside being a starving artist and I didn’t feel ready [to pursue that career]. I worked, in total, for about 28 years for the Illinois department of DCFS…and then when I was about 42 I thought to myself, ‘I would like to do some art. Maybe it’s time to be an art teacher or something.’”
Inspired, Mendoza returned to art school at Columbia College Chicago, receiving a Master’s degree in Art Education. He has since become a prominent voice in the early anti-Chief movement, worked at the Native American House on the University of Illinois’ campus and – of course – followed his earliest calling to create art.
In recent years, Mendoza has channeled his energy into photography and assemblage, an art form (similar to that of sculpting) that involves “sticking unlike things together,” as Mendoza explained. Although Mendoza began his career as an artist with an interest in painting, photography and assemblage (as well as a mixed-media combination of the two crafts) became natural discoveries.
“Years ago, when I was out walking, I’d bring home little pieces of things (like a rock or a stick) and my son and daughter would ask, “Dad, why do you pick all of this stuff up?’” said Mendoza. “I’d say, ‘I don’t pick everything up. I just pick up what speaks to me…’ Then later in an art class, I thought I’d do something with all the little things I’d picked up throughout the years. So I did.”
An assortment of Mendoza’s assemblages will be featured in “In Cahoots” at the YMCA. These works are composed of sticks, paintings, steel and pieces of glass – as well as the occasional pair of sunglasses or curve of drainpipe. “Materials resonate differently with people,” he said. “The difference between a finely grained piece of oak and things like shiny chrome or rust [is noticeable]… people respond to natural things differently than they do to artificial things. But when you put them together, sometimes they create different responses.”
Mendoza’s opinions on assemblage and the found materials that he utilizes seem to encapsulate an idea that has inspired and driven him for decades: unlike and contrasting things, whether they be the natural and the artificial or humans themselves, can be brought together into something that is simultaneously unfamiliar and beautiful.
This theme remains prevalent in his photographs as well, which compose the majority of “In Cahoots.” Many of Mendoza’s photos explore the intersection of humans and the natural world, while others simply “observe” a moment.
“I like beautiful photographs and I like to catch things that occur by happenstance,” he said. “I like the idea of people and nature being together on some level.”
Many moments of “happenstance” are featured in Mendoza’s most recent exhibition. His ability to observe a time and a place resulted in the capturing of two streetlights shining behind a large tree at dusk “at such a point that they look like there are glowing eyes, two eyes inside this tree,” as well as a memorable photograph of a combine in action.
“When I printed [this photo] out, the lights from the combine hit my lens a certain way and reflected in the front, in the soybeans, and created what looks like a little monster with teeth in the grass,” said Mendoza. This capture, which was completely accidental at the time, quickly became symbolic for the artist: “when I looked at it, I started thinking “Oh – that’s what Monsanto’s doing.”
Mendoza doesn’t expect viewers to have the same responses to his work, or even the same ideas about nature and humans, as he does; in fact, he believes that multiple responses and reactions are what make sharing art special.
“The key, of course, is, that someone says something,” said Mendoza. “The worst thing is when nobody says anything, no one stops, nobody looks at anything; hopefully [my art] is like a visual ‘psst – check me out.’”
In his opinions regarding success as an artist, Mendoza remains focused on connection rather than self-recognition or greatness.
“I like the idea that the stuff that the viewers are seeing resonates with them because it resonated with me, that we’re all in this together,” he said. “My photographs, I think that some of them are really nice looking and some are odd – but they make you think. They’re not going to change your life but they might introduce you to something that’s a little different.”
Catch Durango Mendoza’s “In Cahoots” at the University YMCA beginning on January 22.

About The Author

Anwen Parrott

I'm Anwen! I'm the Editor-in-chief of buzz. I study English and Sociology and love buzz (a lot). aparrot2@illinois.edu.

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