Arturo Herrera at Corbett vs. Dempsey


One of my most firmly held beliefs about painting is that it is the closest thing we have to a visual representation of what goes on in the human mind. It is the relationship between what we see, think, and feel that creates the realm of ambiguity in which painting sits. I believe this in spite of all the technology we have to create imagery. It is the tension between surface and illusion achieved by the relationship between the hand, the eye, and material that is most revelatory of a thought process. The exhibition of new works by Arturo Herrera at Corbett vs. Dempsey is a commanding representation of this conviction.

The exhibition includes four series and two standalone works. I did not spend a great deal of time with the two stand-alone works. One is a pattern painted in Latex on the wall of the gallery office titled Heel to Toe, Toe to Heel. The other is a fan-folded book of small collages titled Eds Sweatered. These two singular pieces are the largest and smallest in the exhibition, and although they did not capture my attention on my first visit, they play a pivotal role in translating Herrera’s process and aesthetic to dramatically large and small scales.

It is on the more traditional pictorial scales that Herrera seems to revel in a process of generating abstract compositions through means that feel both rigidly predetermined and vibrantly improvisational. It is thus no wonder that dance is an essential character in the story of this work (more on that later).


Arturo Herrera, Untitled 2018. Collage and mixed media on paper. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey.


Entering the large white cube that is the main gallery at Corbett vs. Dempsey, there is nothing particularly unusual at first glance about framed works hung uniformly on the walls. The power of this work is not fleeting though; each piece is an invitation to decipher seemingly simple gestures that create an ambiguity in the images’ origins, provoking a greater scrutiny of the artist’s process. This is ever present in the series of nine untitled works of mixed media on paper which appear to revolve around, and evolve from, a singularly gestural mark. Each of the nine compositions share the same "figure": a thick, sweeping line reminiscent of a Ab-Ex brushstroke. It appears in each untitled collage as an usual shape that is cut away from paper, interacting with other collage materials like photographs or fragments of cut painted canvas or paper. Some of the pieces are rich with color, while others are subdued in a predominantly gray palette.


Arturo Herrera, installation view of six untitled pieces from 2018. Collage and mixed media on paper. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey.


Repetition plays a key role in this collection of works and Herrera’s process. He seems to be mining a unifying element for all possible variations that could exist within his aesthetic mode while also being open to the possibility of what is produced as a result. The untitled series is unified by the repetition of the mark. In another series, Set Design Studies for Dance N° 1-7, the reoccurring element is the pink paper that appears in each of the fifteen pieces in the series. The pieces are displayed in five columns of three, lending it a more monumental feel. There is also a rhythm to this series in how the compositions are not as uniform as in the other main series in the exhibitions. They feel less like variations on a theme and more like snapshots of an event unfolding in one space.


Arturo Herrera, installation view  of Set Design Studies for Dance/Elements Nº 1 - 15, 2019. Series of 15 elements, collage and mixed media on handmade paper. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey.


It is no wonder that dance is so prevalent in Herrera’s output as visual artist. The physicality of the gestural mark and its analogous relationship to the motion of the body are what make this artist’s work such a strong testament to the value of painting as the most uniquely capable medium for conveying something of human consciousness. This relationship is more directly addressed in the series in the smaller gallery titled Body and Feet Positions in Relation to Line of Dance N° 1-9. This series is the most minimal in the exhibition, as each individual composition is made of just black and transparent glass. The forms in black echo a sense of weight and motion of the body, almost like a mental fingerprint of the body’s physical contact with a surface.


Arturo Herrera, Body and Feet Positions in Relation to Line of Dance   No. 9. Clear and black glass panel over pencil drawing on wall. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey


No painter of the 21st century would let themselves get away with omitting the insertion of self-awareness. Herrera seems to do this with a touch of humor only the art history nerds would get. The Untitled collage series features wallpaper patterns of monochromatic one-hundred dollar bills or repurposed illustrations of windows. The I Heard Them and I Still Hear Them/Elements N° 1-7 series features centralized compositions that echo the traditions of Western Modernism in painting. Black and white photos (origins unclear) overlay color plates of paintings by Pablo Picasso pulled from a book. Painting as a window; images as commodity; Abstraction as Modernity. Herrera plays all the hits all while serving up some deep cuts.


Evan Carter


Evan Carter is the assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.



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