Talking about a hometown can get a little complicated when you happen to have no less than three. This is something Michael Goro knows all too well, having made a substantial amount of major moves throughout his life. We spoke with the Russian-born, Chicago-based artist to find out how each place he’s lived in has informed his artistic expression and personal journey.
If his story is anything like his art, things are about to get very interesting…
Hello, Michael! Where was the first place you called home?
The first place would be the city of St. Petersburg; I was born there. Ever since I can remember, I felt at home in the city – or rather in its historic center, but never in Russia, as contradictory as that sounds. From an early age, I couldn’t help but see the contradiction between my family and narrow circle of friends and society in general. My position was neither political nor ideological – I wasn’t thinking in these terms as a kid. I could just recognize the contrast between the gray and faceless reality of Soviet existence and the warmth of family gatherings. There was a clear distinction between what one could say at home and in public. Any kind of expression of social discontent or just a political joke could trigger serious problems for myself and my parents.
What was it like growing up there? Did St. Petersburg help you discover a passion for art?
The son of a prominent architect, I was exposed to art from an early age. Our apartment was full of art books. The walls were covered by high-end reproductions, mainly of Renaissance masters and impressionists. Every weekend, my dad took me to the Hermitage, still one of my favorite art museums in the world. Besides the presence of the splendid baroque interiors and exquisite art collections, just being there gave me a sense of the “larger world”. The museum was full of tourists from all over, speaking different languages and not looking Soviet. Being in the museum, I felt that through art I could catch a glimpse of life beyond the “Iron Curtain”. Art was a point of connection to the wider world.
The city’s historic center itself was also inspiring. It was conceived by Peter the Great in 1703. He fulfilled his vision to create a new city from scratch, planned in the best western traditions in the midst of Russia. Peter and ultimately his successors hired some of the best architectural talent in Europe to come to Russia and design its new capital. Thanks to both my dad and Peter the Great I’ve been able to tell a neoclassical building from Art Nouveau for as long as I can remember. I believe that my respect for classical traditions and the importance of academic training is the direct result of my St. Petersburg upbringing.
What led you away from Russia, and where did you go next?
I have never been a fan of communism, totalitarianism or any other kind of of …isms, but I was not a dissident either. I was born into the system and saw it as a given. Growing up in St. Petersburg also had its redeeming qualities: I had my family, friends and the city that I found inspiring. I was taking my first steps as a professional artist with my first gallery representation and portrait commissions.
The decision to emigrate came in the late ’80s. It was the time of the Berlin Wall coming down and the democratic changes in the USSR gaining momentum. The Iron Curtain was gradually lifting up. I saw it as an opportunity to get out. I was skeptical about the possibility of a true democracy developing in Russia. The decision to emigrate was not really political and I didn’t care much where I was going. I just wanted to get out and explore the world. Being ethnically Jewish made it possible for me to emigrate to Israel – so I did.
What’s your favorite thing about Israel, or Israeli art?
It is difficult to pinpoint a favorite thing among so many. I came to Jerusalem in the early ‘90s and made the city my home for a few years. I was immediately struck by the intensity of the place, which represents a peculiar mix of madness and tranquility. I was rather ignorant of much of the history and culture of the place at the time of my arrival (my interest in history came later). The cradle of the three major religions turned me into a committed atheist with interest in mindfulness. That said, I spent a good amount of time exploring religious sites, talking to committed believers and, for a time, living in a monastery.
I was more interested in the local specificity than the art scene that I found rather provincial. Initially, my art practice took a two-year hiatus. I opened a framing store to make ends meet. Developing a new business took all of my time and energy. One of my clients was the Jerusalem Print Workshop. I took an introductory etching class there. That class and an acid trip in the eleventh-century monastery set me back on the path of art making.
I didn’t produce much art while in Israel, but my time there has affected my practice for the rest of my life. I’m planning on going to Israel with a project but it’s still too early to talk about the specifics.
Do you have any particularly artistic memories or moments of inspiration from your many travels?
I try to keep my mind open when I go places. I document anything that I find interesting. I rarely have a preconceived notion of how my experience could translate into images. It might take years before I come back to the material that I’ve been collecting. There are situations – like residences, for example – that require me to come up with a visual response right away. In any case, I look for material objects and build environments to tell stories about people.
I’d like to use my Havana series to illustrate this point. The series was based on the visual materials that I collected during my trip to Cuba – whose visuality I felt particularly acutely. In my experience, there are few other places in the world where you can find visual contrasts as striking and humanity as vibrantly exposed as in Cuba. The stately colonial buildings originally designed for a single family are now populated by many. Because of the scarcity of traditional building materials, each newcomer makes adjustments to accommodate their needs using repurposed objects. Some colonial baroque facades evolve into a patchwork of plaster, wood and rusted metal in various combinations and states of decay. My intention is not to fetishize the decay itself. On the contrary, I’m fascinated by the profound humanity underlying this decaying material world. In effect, I see facades of the buildings as human faces transformed by age and experience. To me, each facade is essentially a montage of human experiences represented by repurposed objects and weathered by elements.
This project was presented as a solo show at Jennifer Norback Gallery in Chicago.
Where do you call ‘home’ now?
I feel perfectly at home in Chicago. I moved here back in 2000. It was a deliberate choice to come to Chicago as opposed to chasing academic jobs all over the country. Right from the start, I felt like the city was good to me.
How has living in Chicago changed your artistic expression or informed your work?
I would say greatly. I find my everyday movement through the city incredibly inspiring. I never go out with a specific purpose of taking a particularly evocative photograph or making a sketch. On the contrary, inspiration usually comes from my daily routine. I come across interesting compositions while doing my regular shopping, going to the studio or simply looking out of the loft windows. Even though I practically never leave downtown, I do my best to avoid depicting landmarks. Frankly, I don’t even look up very often. Usually, I paint scenes that are either right in front of me or observed while looking down from the El. train. What I see is a sort of urban sculptural garden. To me, the buildings with all of the attached hardware are purely sculptural forms. Taking a train through downtown is akin to experiencing a visual symphony of lines, silhouettes, and colors.
Besides its purely aesthetic qualities, there is another dimension to my relationship with Chicago. The authenticity of the city has suffered lately from ruthless commercial development, its unique character gradually disappearing along with the signature water towers from the rooftops and the old charming houses that are being replaced by cookie-cutter condominiums and faceless chain stores. As a Chicago-based artist, I feel a special responsibility to document my impressions of the city undergoing a profound change.
Any must-visit art addresses you can recommend in Chicago?
The Art Institute of Chicago is my favorite. I feel very fortunate to be able to go there on a daily basis – my studio is across the street. It is truly inspiring to look at the paintings that I’ve known and admired since childhood and go straight into the studio and paint.
Any plans to fly the nest again soon?
I have some trips planned. I have a show in New York in March and then one in Florence in June. That’s in the short term. As far as moving some place for good, I don’t picture that happening any time soon.