Fragments of a Pictorial Language
Forays into collective memory: Arturo Herrera finds the material he uses for his collages at flea markets. In his conceptual painting, the Venezuelan artist has motifs from comics, art books, private photo albums, and children’s books collide with gestural abstractions. The Deutsche Bank Collection in New York recently purchased his series “Berlin Singers.” Christiane Meixner visited Herrera in his studio in Berlin.
||The table in the studio is so long that you would need a telephone to talk to someone at the other end. For Arturo Herrera, however, it could be even bigger, as papers and foils cover every square inch. The table is not used for meals, though; it serves nonverbal exchange. The artist communicates with his pictures. Still, visitors are welcome in his studio.
Herrera moves inexorably through the room, explaining works, taking sheets from the tabletop and showing details – for example, the meticulously drawn physics experiments that a student transferred to a notebook in ink years ago. The sheets come from a flea market, from the fund of personal mementos that the artist draws on. Over the drawings, the slight, agile man with the shaved head laid a network of geometrical figures that strangely defamiliarize the physical formulas. The series will be reworked several times, until Herrera has enriched it with material from his arsenal to his own satisfaction, as is the case with other new collages that are almost finished. But he hasn’t fixed any motifs yet.
Herrera turns motifs around, shifts transparent foils with black patterns he made himself using a silk-screen process. Later, he will climb up a ladder and view the series from above. Distance is important, though his abstract motifs do not necessarily become easier to comprehend when you take a step back. But from above, he can recognize whether the many details achieve a visual balance. Only then does he glue them on.
Two virtually square formats are hanging on the wall opposite. They, too, display the typical allover of decorative patterns. The artist takes them from fabrics or wallpaper. Then he combines the patterns with set pieces from books or photographs which he likes to cut up or dissect with sharp knives. You can see that there are further layers below the visible motifs. Yet you can’t recognize anything, because everything is covered by a white glaze. "An experiment," says Herrera, still not sure whether it is a successful one. "If it doesn’t pan out, I throw away the works in the end," he says, somewhat coquettishly. But he is dead serious. Only aesthetically appealing, perfectly balanced works leave his studio.
The artist was certain about one thing: that he wanted to move to Berlin. The native Venezuelan received a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to study in the city, and he stayed. After studying in Chicago and living in New York in the previous years, Herrera found Berlin relaxing. "Crazy rents and a crazy pace," were the main reasons for the move. He rented a studio on Oranienstrasse in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin. He had an incredible amount of space, by New York standards, for his experiments. Due to the low rents, he says, people are not under as much pressure to have immediate financial success. What else has changed? “The Disney-like element in my work is gone,” he says.
The artist sees this as a sign that he is influenced by his immediate surroundings. In the United States, he says, the world of Disney had a much stronger impact on him than in Berlin. But that may be an overstatement. His series Boy and Dwarf, consisting of 75 oversized formats of the exact same size that he executed after moving to Berlin and that were first shown in 2006 in New York and subsequently at the Max Hetzler gallery in Berlin, contain two figures that came directly from the realm of fairytales. Until Arturo Herrera got hold of them and covered them with layers of patterns and streaks of color until they were merely obscure silhouettes which had lost all their cuteness. This is rather eerie, and the uncanny aspect is heightened by the fact they were hung closely together, surrounding the viewer like a forest.
The huge dimensions of these comic figures correspond wonderfully with their universal presence. As a part of popular culture, they make it into every small child’s room and thus into remote corners of memory. As a consequence, Disney is even more omnipresent than the ancient sculptures that Herrera discovers in old art books and hides in small doses in his collages: as a marble leg or a torso, which catches your eye for a second before it is distracted by other impressions. Everyday processes of perception are reflected in the all-over of his motifs. His works have no center. Instead, elements of equal value compete for attention and force the viewer to opt for one. Is the viewer interested in trash and kitsch? Or in Herrera’s references to art history? In his work, he not only picks up on different styles and subjects, but also adopts artistic techniques: Pollock’s dripping, Rauschenberg’s amalgamation of collage and painting, Polke’s grids and ornaments. In Felt #4 (2008), the flaccid felt sculptures of the Minimal artist Robert Morris are visible, as are citations from Picasso and Braque, who started collaging around 2012 to fragment reality in their paintings.
Herrera’s strategy is additive, like that of the Cubists. But it is also consciously eclectic. He relentlessly brings together everything that characterizes collective memory in his opinion. This includes kitsch figures and ancient sculptures, as well as old-fashioned cake recipes and reproductions of paintings that are anchored so deeply in memory that they are scarcely perceived. The artist engages in mind mapping, revealing these images layer for layer and having them collide in his works. But as the collision in the wild remix is disarmingly appealing, the subversive character is not noticed at first. The same is true of the historical material that Herrera incorporates in his work.
At the flea market, the artist discovered a stack of Deutsche Oper programs, with CVs and portraits of singers who were celebrated as stars in the 1950s but today are virtually forgotten. Herrera seems to feel there is some justice in this. In his series Berlin Singers from the Deutsche Bank Collection, he feeds ten of these portraits into the cycle of rotating portraits by pressing them into the substrate and subsequently covers them with colored surfaces and paper cut-outs – until the singers are almost unrecognizable. What seems like an effacement is actually a transformation. The artist combines the present with the past when he marks certain motifs with paint or the spidery traces of his brush. From the inexhaustible reservoir of reproductions, Herrera selects what is valuable and important to him and arranges them into personal histories. “I don’t know exactly what others see in it, and I don’t want to dictate that to them,” says the artist. “Everyone brings along their own individual memories.”
His first institutional show in Germany in 2010 was called Arturo Herrera – Home, mounted of all places at the Haus am Waldsee, which was originally built as a private villa for a Jewish industrialist family. That is not what Herrera’s home is, of course. The title refers to his arrival in Germany and to the private character of this institution. It is precisely this intimacy that distinguishes “Home” from other solo exhibitions of the artist, including shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, P.S. 1 in New York and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Herrera’s collages take up motifs from old German fairytale books that he found at the flea market. Among them are a confectionary book from 1925 with instructions on how to decorate cakes. He drew circles with a pencil and put ink marks on the nostalgic pictures.
Home reveals the entire wealth of motifs that Artur Herrera uses and against which he juxtaposes his gestural, painterly vocabulary. In addition, the exhibition makes it clear just how brutal this clash is. For the fact is that the artist proceeds barbarically: He cuts up books and illustrations, brushes paint over motifs or makes them unrecognizable with the help of uniform grids. The longer you look at the surfaces, the stronger this impression is. "I like it when people feel uneasy in front of my pictures," says Herrera. His prediction is fulfilled quickly – at the latest when you notice that he has distorted familiar images and stretched them to their limits in order to find out whether there is something new and unknown between all the clichés. Comic figures, sugar coating, antiquity: Herrera entices the viewer with very familiar motifs that overlap in his collages. The way memories overlap in our minds. He does not unleash political discourse, does not question the power of signs. In his works, he creates something like a coordinate system, through which we can move freely – in a field of tension between formalism and politics, his own biography and collective history.