Arturo Herrera: Unravelling in a collage of fragments. Words by Jason Roy

Installation view, Arturo Herrera: From This Day Forward, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 13 March - 6 June 2021

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Ben Westoby

Arturo Herrera’s current exhibition, From This Day Forward, at Thomas Dane Gallery is both symbolic of an emergence from lockdown, but also presents itself as an ‘anchor’ which looks to unify the changing spectrum of our experiences. The exhibition presents a series of framed and unframed collages on walls adorned with mural-sized shapes. The collages seem to expand and contract throughout the space, both in the essence of their composition and in the variation of their physical scale; symbols and shapes engulf the walls while small fragments permeate the works themselves. Accompanying these works is one of an edition of 56 books, constructed from the bound pages of magazines and catalogues, and with what appears to be a language of shapes screen-printed throughout the leaves.

After having the opportunity to ask Arturo directly about what was going on, I felt initially placated in my understanding. In the same way that media has fragmented our lives into digestible but detached chunks, so too has our existence been faceted by this slow emergence from the pandemic. We cautiously step back in as small groups, being fed portions of the perceived whole that existed in 2019, as if one day these fragments will align to produce an image that we remember. Arturo’s work, in a process which I discovered to be almost soft and passive, seems to suggest that our combined experiences are only unifiable through this process of fragmentation.

Having felt the need here to summarise, my efforts seem to contradict the nature of the work. There is no dogma here – ‘audiences are smart and are able to grasp what they need or crave from what is already there.’

Arturo Herrera
Untitled, 2020
paper, board, photograph, gouache, screen print, collage on offset print
46.4 x 35.3 cm

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Making use of an old exhibition poster as collage material, Herrera makes a positive link with a pre-Covid date, setting up the two timeframes as fragments.
The press release for the show mentions a kind of homage to collage which, as we understand it now, is around a century old. How do you see your use of collage in comparison to early collage, employed by the cubists for example?

Collage was well established around the world way before Braque and Picasso started making their ground-breaking cubist experiments. But their work differs from earlier manifestations as it was directly related to painting, sculpture and the times that they lived in. 2012 commemorated collage’s centennial but surprisingly it went largely unnoticed by major cultural institutions. The practice of collage remains an essential technique for contemporary artists. Its flexibility and capacity to generate meaning out of dislocated fragments makes it as compelling today as it was 110 years ago. The materials and sources might be different, but through collage we can always see the world in new and unexpected ways.

The show takes on a kind of necessary context of emerging from lockdown and art re-establishing itself physically. In what way did this context affect your practice or preparation for the exhibition?

The show tries to link the multiplicity of singular and disjointed experiences that we all went through last year to our current state of reality, whatever that might be. The pieces in the exhibition explore the search for a kind of centre or anchor which is built and obliterated simultaneously. Fragments set up a dynamic and contradictory entity which is both solid and transitory. Book, collages, and wall paintings seem in a state of flux.

I like the idea that your work is in a process of making and destroying in the same instance. The exhibition itself appears and will eventually disappear. Do you understand your work to be leaving anything behind? How, if at all, do you revisit your work?

Exhibitions display a certain body of work in a specific space for a limited amount of time. Ideally, artists and institutions aim for the highest cultural and intellectual impact that can reverberate with each viewer and society at large. Unfortunately, we don't always succeed and what remains is a proposal for dialogue. Whether visitors like the show or not, they never leave empty-handed. Doing exhibitions allows artists and viewers to assess what worked and what didn't, allowing us to delve deeper in what lies ahead.

Arturo Herrera
Untitled, 2020
paper, felt, book pages, aluminium plate, oil, gouache, screen print, collage on board
181.4 x 92.7 cm

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Found drawings in this work, employing a traditional point perspective (as can be seen particularly in the upper left) echo the sense of depth created as the intensity of the collage increases towards the centre of the work. There is a push-and-pull between the work's physical surface and the perceived depth beyond.
There are moments when it felt like my eye might be working its way beyond the picture surface and into some depth within the image, but the eye is then immediately arrested by the surface again. I have recently seen images created by artificial intelligence neural networks which are able to produce a composition that, on first glance, resembles a room or a landscape but is actually incomprehensible and has no identifiable features. There is an engagement with the pattern-seeking nature of the eye with both these images and your work. Do you find that this element of pattern seeking has a function in your practice?

How we construct meaning to unravel/question what is happening when looking at art is highly personal. Viewers use a wide variety of means to probe, enter, and occupy images. Pattern recognition, explicit shapes, abstract and figurative representation, ambiguous formats - these are some of the tools we use to make sense of what is in front of us. This compelling quest is fundamental as it reveals how each of us can navigate the flow of associations of unrelated elements making up an entirely new image.

I am interested to hear what you think about your audience. Having spent some time considering the way in which the works arrest the eye onto their surface – also aided by Scott Roben’s text – I have found a lot to gain from something initially harder for me to access. In a way, while having a certain transparency to them, the works are also rich in theory and engagement. Do you think this level of engagement in your audience is crucial?

Art sets up an immediate and critical involvement connected to our public and private history. I can‘t predict or force any level of attachment, but audiences are smart and are able to grasp what they need or crave from what is already there. The work presents itself to be experienced in a non-linear process which, in my opinion, is richer and more rewarding at the end.

Installation view, Arturo Herrera: From This Day Forward, Thomas Dane Gallery, London

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Ben Westoby

Almost like an indecipherable language, large fragments line the walls and also appear in a smaller scale in Herrera's editioned books.
The way you think about your work seems to tend towards the non-specific. You utilise the audience’s ability to know what they want or crave, rather than trying to give them something specific. Do you think that this is important of art in general? What do you think about artworks/artists that try to tell a specific story or present a specific idea?

Artworks are replete with meaning and stories. Some of these are clearly defined while others more enigmatic. Both approaches are valid and have their place in the making of art. I particularly enjoy when a work delivers its content in a such a way that it feels essential. The aesthetic is so intertwined with the message that the result is persuasive and unforgettable. On the other hand, ambiguity offers a certain freedom, a bridge to an individual journey where we can wander and explore with or without clear answers.

Arturo Herrera
From This Day Forward, 2019/2020
artist's book of 208 found pages, each printed with an original silkscreen. 56 exemplars were assembled by hand and stitched bound
29 x 35.5 cm

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: def image, Berlin
Installation view, Arturo Herrera: From This Day Forward, Thomas Dane Gallery, London

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Ben Westoby
How do you see the book in relation to the works? Despite being editions, each book is totally original apart from them all being products of the same methodology. While the works on the walls maintain a sense of uniqueness in themselves, the book enters this fluid state of being in context with the other 55 editions. Is this at all how you see it?

All 56 editions are unique as each book has 208 uprooted pages from a wide variety of publications. Every page has a different shape printed on it. These black forms and outlines interact like glued pieces of paper, revealing and obscuring, while generating a layered framework of the existing page.

I created a system before assembling the books to maintain a structural, conceptual, and formal balance in each of the exemplars. Size of pages, content, paper quality, type of reproductions, typography, sequencing, colour or black & white printing were some of the factors taken into consideration when making the books.

Every element in From This Day Forward is connected and juxtaposed with the others to propose a kind of 3-D collage.

The black forms in the book, and the blown-up shapes on the gallery walls both have a sense of being machined – like the printed typography from the magazine and catalogue pages. Hand-collaging, for me, always strongly evokes manual work – physical cutting and pasting is a very human activity. The use of this variety of mediums which deal with both mass production and artisanal production becomes very palpable. How do you think of this distinction between the machined and the manual?

All the shapes and outlines in the book and on the walls derive from my drawings and as such they tend to appear in different configurations in my work. Making collages on both sides of 208 pages would have created a swelling on the centre of the book, making it unstable and susceptible to structural changes. Printing gouache through a silkscreen eliminated this problem. I wanted the thin layer of paint to function like a paper fragment hiding parts of the commercially printed page, thus generating a new reading. Even though the book doesn't conform to the intrinsic nature of paper collage, and the large outlines in the space are painted, they point metaphorically at articulating connections among disparate elements. For me collage is about triggering a chain reaction of the visual and the psychological. Navigating these points of access is what I am interested in.

Arturo Herrera
Untitled, 2020
paper, board, laid down on painted wood
50 x 30 x 1.3 cm

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
From what you are describing, I understand that the exhibition itself becomes an exploded view of fragments which are collaged with the fragmentary personal and cultural experiences of the viewer. I am interested in how the works begin and end, how the collages often gain momentum/contract towards the centre and ease/relax towards the edges. How do you see a work when it has been framed? Does it become more enclosed and isolated from its surroundings?

From This Day Forward sets up a lively correspondence among the collages, the wall paintings, and the architectural enclosure. This unexpected interaction is determined by the duration of the show. What will remain are the individual works which hold numerous dislocated references within themselves. All works begin simply by layering one piece a time. One collage can have hundreds of pieces while some have only one or two. The centre is the main foundation, and the pieces are built step by step until the desired result is achieved.  Frames isolate and bring focus to these intriguing configurations. Although the current presentation will never be repeated, the collages and the book will continue to interact through individual viewers.

Arturo Herrera
Untitled, 2020
book page, board, canvas, oil, laid down on painted wood
50 x 30 cm

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

This work takes on a kind of depth similar to the perceived depth mentioned earlier. It seems almost as if the image is an object which you could rotate, move around.
You mention collaging with one or two elements, as well as with hundreds. Works with fewer elements, such as the above work, appears to me to become more like an object. This works almost feels like it could be picked up and held, like it would cast a discrete shadow onto the ground, as opposed to the more complex collages which are more ephemeral and intangible. Do you see this same distinction?

Due to their unframed wooden support the black collages feel more exposed, inviting a closer and more intimate viewing experience. The collage that you are referring to is made up of painted canvas glued to a printed piece of paper. The shifts in scale, materials and numbers of elements and layers add to the overall impact of the pieces and the show in general. For me both the minimalist and maximalist collages embody a dynamic alertness within the seemingly ephemeral quality of paper fragments.

Arturo Herrera
Untitled, 2020
paper, photograph, gouache, acrylic, collage on photogravure
19 x 14 cm

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Installation view, Arturo Herrera: From This Day Forward, Thomas Dane Gallery, London

© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Ben Westoby
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© Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York