Painter Anthony Izzo never cared much for the traditional art-market system, where the gallery owner is God, the artist is powerless, and the art is presented in arid little white-wine-and-attitude openings. That system is all about exclusivity, while Izzo’s impulses, rising from the meat grinder of a southwest-side Catholic gay boyhood, are definitely in the opposite direction.

“Even as an artist, when I used to go in those galleries I’d feel so uncomfortable,” Izzo says. “You drop your slides off, they contact you maybe a couple weeks later to say ‘we want you’–or not–tell you what to bring, and that’s about it.” In most cases, there’s no relationship between curator and artist or artist and buyer, and the artist has very little control over what works are shown. The public perceives an enormous snub–the sense that to go to a gallery, “you need to be educated, you need to have money.” To a guy who spent most of his sexually ambiguous, Coke-bottle-glasses-and-checkered-pants youth as the class punching bag, the prevailing ethos didn’t sit well.

These days Izzo doesn’t look like someone to mess with: a burly 34-year-old with a brown-eyed puss that has his parents’ Taylor Street roots written all over it, he talks (and talks) in a Chicago accent that, no matter the subject, says “southwest side, wanna make somethin’ of it?” Even with the spiky bleached hair and Liberace voice, he doesn’t seem like a kid who went to school every morning with a knot in his stomach and came home with gum in his hair. He’s “metamorphosed” since then, he says, but hasn’t forgotten the lessons his youth taught him. “My policy has always been this: the more honest you are in life, the easier it is. That’s one reason why people can connect with me.”

As far as Izzo’s concerned, connecting is what art is about. “I use art to bring people together of all different diversities, sexualities, cultures, ethnic groups,” he says. Five years ago, after someone handed him a copy of Shakti Gawain’s book Living in the Light: A Guide to Personal and Planetary Transformation, he began to “tap into [his] own positivity,” and saw that an art opening should be a great, big, happy, grooving festival, with everyone warm and welcome, and if that happened, the art would sell too. Out of this idea was eventually born a periodic orgy that Izzo, in an inspired marketing moment, christened Artikism.

“The goal was to have three or four of these one-day art events a year that would draw masses of people,” Izzo says. “I would rent a 10,000-square-foot space. A week before the show we would go to the hardware store, spend hundreds of dollars, build walls, and the night the show was over, tear it all down.” Izzo and his business partner produced their own PR blitz, even going on WGN radio to talk it up to an audience more likely to head to a baseball game. The people came: the last Artikism, in September 1996, drew a thousand viewers and sold 80 works. But after doing it for a year and a half, the show had begun to change in ways that made Izzo uncomfortable. It was getting too commercial, he says, “so I ended it. I just approached [my partner] one day and says, ‘I had a pleasure working with you up to this point, but I can’t go on no more.'”

But that didn’t mean Izzo was finished with showing art. Nearly a year ago, with the help of two old friends who became new partners (and money from his weekend job as a waiter), he rented a permanent gallery space, named it Izzo’s Artery, and began working on very different terms from the usual gallery arrangement. Artists plunk down $100 to have their work up at the Artery for a month, but the gallery’s commission on sales is less than the standard split. The artist decides what will be shown, the space is generous, and almost anything goes. “My philosophy of art is anything that somebody is passionate about, that’s an art form,” Izzo says. The monthly openings, now supplemented by film, concert, and poetry nights, are one of the best free parties in town.

Izzo’s Artery, 1255 S. Wabash, third floor, opens a new show, “Innerspace Outerspace,” Saturday from 6 PM to midnight. Works from thirteen artists will be featured, along with performances by Casaluna and the cast of Dirty Little Show Tunes. Admission and all the positive vibes you can soak up are free; refreshments are extra. Call 312-663-0938 for more information. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Anthony Izzo photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.