Weekend afternoons, Michael Bonfiglio crawls into the window of his Andersonville storefront gallery and either stands or sits cross-legged before an easel. There, surrounded by boots, handbags, and mannequins decorated with dots of acrylic paint, he applies more dots to a canvas. Passersby ignore him; others stop and stare.
"Hopefully people will come inside, see my stuff, and buy," says Bonfiglio. As evening falls he'll often dispense with many of his garments. "Michael keeping his clothes on is kind of hard," says his friend Elizabeth, the owner of Bon Bon, the chocolate shop next door. "He's always going around barefoot in a teeny-tiny tank top or without his shirt." Bonfiglio says that the sight of him bare chested has caused drivers on Clark to honk their horns and whistle. "I've had men come in and offer to have sex," he says. "I direct them to the bathhouse down the street."
His paintings are masses of dots, presented as abstract swirls, sunflowers and umbrellas, or grotesque, cartoonish characters. Bonfiglio calls his style "dotism," and says that each dot "is a validation of my existence." That's about as theoretical as he gets, though Paul Jaskot, chair of the art department at DePaul, says he likes them for "the interplay I find between the very bright colors and the distorted imagery. Are these paintings going into the Museum of Modern Art? No. Do they raise issues of form and psychology? Yes."
In 1987 Bonfiglio was 19 and modeling for drawing classes at Illinois State University (one of six colleges he attended, but never graduated from) when his own artistic ambition hit. "I would sit in on critiques, and I got to thinking it would be fun to explore the creative process," he says. For years he created abstract watercolors and pastels, and then dot paintings, in off-hours while working as a biofeedback technician at the Diamond Headache Clinic. Then Bonfiglio's mother, Mary, who had raised him on her own in Niles, developed Alzheimer's and eventually died. "Watching her dissolve made me realize that I didn't want to live my life with regrets," says Bonfiglio. Three years ago he left the clinic to launch his gallery. "My boyfriend thought I was nuts for doing this, with no money, no experience, and no art credits," he says. "I was devastated. He broke my heart."
Bonfiglio rented a space on the second floor of the building he's in now. To grab people's attention, he hooked up two bubble machines in an open window. "The bubbles would blow out and onto the people walking by below," says Bonfiglio, "and I had a sandwich sign directing them upstairs to the gallery. They came, but I didn't want to run a bubble machine for the rest of my life."
To raise his profile, he started donating paintings to fund-raisers benefiting gay causes. Then, last November, a couple of months after he had moved the gallery downstairs, a publicist with whom he was working on a charity event told him that his display windows "full of junk" stank. "You need to do something to represent you," she told him. "I thought about that for a while, and I decided," he says, "what better represents me than me. So I stuck myself in the window."
He's not shy about sticking himself elsewhere. In June, when Hillary Clinton signed copies of her autobiography down the street at Women & Children First, Bonfiglio got dressed up in a dot-covered hat, jeans, and a silk vest and stood in the long line to meet her. "I like your bracelet," he told Clinton. "I like your hat," she replied. He presented the senator with a painting, and later she sent Bonfiglio a thank-you note, which is now framed over his desk at the gallery. On a filing cabinet next to the desk is some white dust in a plastic bag. "That's my mother," Bonfiglio says of what turns out to be Mary's ashes. "I just didn't want to part with them, and anyway, I like having my mother around."
Gallery Bonfiglio opens at 11 AM and will host a reception from 6 PM to midnight on Saturday, October 18, at 5408 N. Clark; call 773-989-7840. It's part of the weekend-long Andersonville Arts Smorgasbord; for information see www.andersonville.org or call 773-728-2995.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.