Muralist’s newest work, open today, connects us all in distress

Note: Wrote this story for a class. It’s been through one edit by a friend of mine.

Try to paint bright colors outdoors in Lincoln Park and you’ll be accosted by either a community association or the police. Visit Pilsen and you’ll see painting after painting of people working, laughing, crying. On outdoor walls. With bright colors.

Several muralists have contributed to Pilsen’s reputation as a place for public art, but the most prominent working there today is Jeff Zimmermann. He’s been putting community ideals on display for communities for years—but Zimmermann also has some thoughts about the dark side of existence, which tend to work better in galleries than on your commute.

A creepy work he calls The God Particle is his newest project in the city, nestled in a gallery at Chicago Cultural Center. The Center will celebrate its completion tonight with a reception.

Like the old guard of muralists, Zimmermann researches his subjects thoroughly and uses the likenesses of real people; he includes pop culture references; and generally he uses his symbolism to evoke political messages–thoughts about a group of people.

One of his Pilsen murals depicts Latinos in various uniforms, showing their contribution to the American economy and society.

“They might not be the best jobs,” said Aimee Alvarez, who is a junior at Christo Rey High School and is familiar with the mural. “But we do our best to work and progress as a people.”

Zimmermann also tends to add touches for a new generation. Somehow his colors are even brighter than those of muralists past–at times they border on neon. He uses photorealism to command respect for his technical proficiency. And more often than not, each element in his murals seems to have its own buoyancy, as if it were floating in some Matrix-esque translucent jelly. Eerie. Which brings us to The God Particle.

The thing is a collection of the troubled faces of real Chicago pedestrians, interspersed with symbolism that, like thought bubbles, shows viewers their various concerns as they go about their days. They wear halos of both bold reds and light blues, like deities with no particular allegiance.

One woman holds a crying baby, looking determined to get through the embarrassment she’s causing others (who aren’t depicted). One agonized man flanking a disembodied hand of cards has a person-sized revolver pointed at his temple. A pile of spent lottery tickets lies on the floor nearby.

“When we face certain adversities we think about our options,” said Syed Matin, who visited the exhibit last night, about the man on the wall. Matin is a 14-year-old student at Main East High School.

An available program at the exhibit proclaims its symbolism “open to personal interpretation.”

The central element of the whole-room work is a rainbow painted with dirty yellows and browns, dripping over a disgustingly glossy open mouth, whose two-dimensional tongue appears to reach toward a (real) metal drinking fountain placed a few feet out from the wall.

All these people are striving for something in their lives, something they need but don’t have. They may be everyday things like a refreshing drink, or simply raising one’s children with dignity. Or they may be as ambitious as looking for the Higgs Boson, the so-called God Particle whose search has cost 40 governments $8 billion.

Zimmerman might ask, are all these people really searching for something different?

Reception for Zimmermann’s completion of the project runs 5:30-7:30 p.m., Nov. 5. Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.

– Brandon Smith

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