News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Was It Something He Painted?; Sybil Shearer Tribute

A Mexican artist whose work is critical of the U.S. is turned away at the airport.

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Was It Something He Painted?;

Artist Agustin Portillo flew into O'Hare Airport from Mexico City on September 5 with prestigious one-man shows at the Union League and University clubs coming up. On a roll with six solo shows in the Chicago area last year, Portillo, who was accompanied by art dealer Eugenio Cortez, says he had a valid tourist visa and wasn't expecting any problems. But the first immigration officer he and Cortez spoke with turned them over to a supervisor who wasn't impressed by Portillo's assertion that he was coming here to "enrich the arts and culture of the United States." Portillo says the official responded, "I don't care about your culture," and the next thing the pair knew they were on a plane back to Mexico, deported and barred from returning for five years.

A talented painter with muralist roots, Portillo has developed a cartoonish body of work that is merciless in its critique of America, which he portrays as greedy, soulless, and perverse. Chicago art dealer Aldo Castillo says the deportation made him suspicious; he'd included Portillo's painting America-War--which shows an American soldier tonguing an Iraqi prisoner while Lynndie England looks on--in an exhibit at his gallery last year, and worried that "something like that might compromise his welcome." But Portillo doesn't think that's the case; what you've got here, he says, is an instance of arrogance and bureaucratic folly.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, now a part of the Department of Homeland Security, paints a different picture. "On the basis of what [Portillo] told them and documents he was carrying," says spokesperson Cherise Miles, officials concluded that "he was spending more time in the United States than in Mexico" and suspected he was "attempting to establish residency here without proper authorization, a violation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act." Miles says Portillo was offered "an opportunity to voluntarily withdraw his application for admission," which he turned down before being "processed for expedited removal, which carries the five-year barring."

Portillo insists he is not attempting to become a resident and was never given the chance to leave voluntarily. He says since 2001, when he first came here to teach art to Chicago schoolchildren through a program sponsored by the Mexican government, he's developed a following that led to exhibitions and purchases by American museums. He says he's now been told he needs a different kind of visa, but notes that his tourist visa was never an issue when he paid American taxes on those sales. "This is where the contradictions become evident," he says. "Why did I not have any difficulty gaining a taxpayer identification number?

Although he's just heard that Mexico's secretary of foreign relations will investigate, Portillo says he's gotten no satisfactory response to letters to the American Embassy and Mexican president Vicente Fox. If Fox is reluctant to help out that's not a huge surprise: in 2001 Portillo was arrested for painting graffiti on the Mexican National Council of Arts and Culture building. The message: "Fox you are a liar!"

Sybil Shearer Tribute

Of all the lives lived in the arts in Chicago, one of the oddest was Sybil Shearer's. Born in 1912 and drawn to dance after seeing Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, she spent a summer at Bennington College when it was a modern dance mecca and then put in seven years of study and work in New York City with the likes of Doris Humphrey and Agnes de Mille. In 1941 Shearer had a debut solo at Carnegie Hall that won rave reviews and should've launched a high-profile career, but the next year she exiled herself to Chicago, where she worked on faculty at Roosevelt University and hooked up with photographer Helen Balfour Morrison, with whom she'd spend most of the rest of her life. An established celebrity-portrait photographer (Frank Lloyd Wright, Thornton Wilder, Bertrand Russell), Morrison became Shearer's lighting director, business manager, and adoptive mother. She took care of Shearer's worldly needs and obsessively captured her on film, creating the drop-dead images that helped build a dancing legend. In 1951 Shearer left Roosevelt and moved into a home and studio built for her on what was, in effect, the side yard of the Northbrook home Morrison shared with her husband.

Shearer suffered a fatal stroke in November. The Morrison-Shearer Foundation, which she endowed after Morrison's death in 1984, will maintain the Jens Jensen-landscaped Northbrook property and its buildings as an artists' retreat and archive, and this spring will publish the first installment of Shearer's three-volume autobiography--much of it drawn from handwritten copies she kept of nearly every letter she ever sent. What's left in addition to that is the criticism she wrote in her later years and Morrison's work, including a collection of films in which Shearer performs her own dances in front of a stationary camera in the little Northbrook studio. They help explain why this idiosyncratic loner--whose career largely consisted of sporadic performances in midwest college auditoriums, who never really got the hang of choreographing for others (or dancing with anyone else), and who had no identifiable dance vocabulary that could be passed on to succeeding generations--is considered a giant in her field. Some of the films will be shown at a tribute this Sunday at the Art Institute, where Shearer performed one last time for her amazed public a year ago.

Memorial Tribute to Sybil Shearer

WHEN: Sun 2/5, 1:30 PM

WHERE: Art Institute of Chicago, Fullerton Hall, Michigan & Adams

PRICE: Free

INFO: 312-443-3680

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Aldo Castillo Gallery, Helen Balfour Morrison.

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