Abstraction, Chance, and Collage

Arturo Herrera

Artist Arturo Herrera discusses chance, fragmentation, narrative, and motivation in relation to his artistic practice.

ART21: Can you clarify what you mean by [the word] chance, especially with the collages you’ve been photographing?

HERRERA: By chance, I mean (in the photo work) that I usually don’t compose the way I’m photographing. I go through and take three or four photos of the same collage, but I’m not carefully composing what the final shot will be. I’m basically shooting four or five photos in the hope that maybe one of them will work out. I don’t spend a lot of time setting up the drawings or selecting the specific fragments. I’m letting the photograph lead me into this thing.

Once the roll is done, I put it in water, and that’s where much more chance happens. The way the water seeps into the film—if it’s hot water or cold or coffee with ice cubes in it—it will affect the film and the emulsion on the film. After a week or a month there, then it’s taken to the lab, and whatever happens there will be part of the photograph.

After all the photos are done, I go through a very strict system of editing and selection. The process is based on how strong these images are, which ways they please me, and which ways they become challenging to me—and hopefully challenging to the audience. They seem to be very intimate images, and they allow you to go into this state of making connections between the fragments that you see, what they are supposed to be, and what they bring to your memory. So, it’s a fairly subjective process.

ART21: Can you say more about your system of selection?

HERRERA: The system of selection is just based on quality—your own system of quality. Going through hundreds and hundreds of images, you tend to have specific choices or preferences. If I’m happy with them or if I find they are intriguing, then I will include them. Working like this, without focusing on specific compositions when you’re photographing, leaves you with many, many photographs that don’t make the final cut. Sometimes the emulsion gets stuck, or the film gets damaged. So, I don’t really know what’s going to happen to these things until I see them printed.

ART21: What will be the final outcome for these photographs—the final work?

HERRERA: These photographs are made in a series of eighty images. I think, when you see them all together, you tend to create your own kind of viewing or journey or path or choreography. You tend to be taken by specific images, and then you start going from there, back and forth like a ping-pong ball or a pinball machine. This process becomes a very private conversation with these images. What these images tell the viewer, I don’t know; that, to me, remains somewhat secret. They’re satisfying to me, and I hope they’re satisfying to the audience.

Arturo Herrera in his Berlin studio, 2005. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 3 episode, Play. © Art21, Inc. 2005.

ART21: Is there an associational narrative for you, or is it purely abstract?

HERRERA: Well, the photos deal with the history of photography, modernism, chance operation, surrealism—they’re complex in different ways. But they are also very quiet. They don’t try to undermine or criticize or pay homage; they’re just part of a tradition which I respect. And this is just my participation with these images. I believe that the dialogue with these images is both emotional and intellectual. It’s a one-to-one dialogue, and associative power or juxtaposition is the way to enter the work. As you can see, the photos deal with my own mark making and popular culture. It’s a collage, taken to a photographic level. The fragment is still there, and the juxtapositions and the references are all exploding in front of your face.

It’s kind of a silent cacophony. It’s loud but, at the same time, quiet. I’m interested in this kind of ambiguity about the images. They’re clearly from a tradition, they’re clearly based on fragments, and they’re being juxtaposed. They’re being forced to be together, there’s chance operations, and yet they’re just abstractions. Now, is that pertinent today? I don’t know, but I want to explore the possibility because abstraction is a fairly young language.

ART21: How did your work change when you went to school in Chicago?

HERRERA: I spent eight years traveling and working before that. I traveled in Europe and went back to Venezuela. It was a period of reflecting on what had happened in school and reflecting on what I wanted to do. I decided to go to graduate school in Chicago. That allowed for a very critical training. I think my interest in popular culture, cartoons and signs developed because these elements were easily accessible. They’re inexpensive. They were all around in stores—Salvation Army, Goodwill. So, you could actually make works very cheaply using glue, scissors, and paper. So, that allowed me to be able to cut and find fragments that were richer than the actual pages where they came from. Juxtaposing those fragments created other images with surprising effects. So then, I kept going.

ART21: But doesn’t collage mean “to paste,” not “to cut”?

HERRERA: To be able to paste two or three pieces of paper, you have to achieve that through cutting. But I think the most essential part of collage is imposing or juxtaposing—to glue a piece of paper on top of another piece of paper. So, that is the essential aspect of collage. Cutting allows you to concentrate on the essence of the fragment that you want to isolate. But collaging means gluing, that’s really the most important thing. That’s when the images are actually formed, when they’re actually joined together for good.

Arturo Herrera in his New York studio, 2004. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 3 episode, Play. © Art21, Inc. 2005.

ART21: Can you talk about fragmentation and the final image?

HERRERA: I’m interested in how an image that is so well composed and so clear and so objective—made out of these disparate fragments—can be glued, forced together to create an image that will have a different reading from what the fragments said. Both sides are part of the image’s ambiguity, of not knowing exactly what I’m looking at, and then the clarity of the way it was composed. This is something intriguing to me.

ART21: How much are you directing the viewer in your work?

HERRERA: You’re on your own when you look at these images. Fragments offer a point of entry that you can identify in the piece. Once you’re there, you are in a complete process of association. And that process is completely different to another person’s process. So, I’m not directing you towards a specific reading. You will be able to form whatever information you want from this image because it allows this field of abstraction, with some subjectivity, and then the objectivity of the image is there, too. So, you shift back and forth without any kind of order or didactic direction from me telling you what to do or how to look at the image.

ART21: What about the impact the scale of your work makes on the viewer?

HERRERA: The collages represent a very intimate scale and actually indicate the way I work and the scale of the table that I work on. I think the scale of the collages allows for an intimate connection. And seeing them in series allows them to inform back and forth. The intimacy of the scale is important because when the wall paintings occur, it’s a completely different situation.

Arturo Herrera. Keep in Touch (from set #4), detail, 2004. Installation view at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, 2005. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 3 episode, Play. Artwork courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Production still © Art21, Inc. 2005.

ART21: What propels you to come to the studio every day?

HERRERA: Coming to the studio is time for discovery. As Stravinsky said, “Unless you work for many hours, nothing is going to happen.” So, the muse of invention doesn’t exist; you just have to work. It’s a job, and you just have to come. For me, usually, it happens at the last minute of the last hour: I’m utterly exhausted, and I thought it was a wasted day, and then something happens. So, I believe in just being in the studio, trying different things, playing, experimenting.

Working through chance accidents, it’s hard to be able to get some kind of result. Since I don’t work through specific ideas, I basically have to sit and come up with something. The only way to do that is just to come into the studio and get your hands dirty, get the X-Acto blade cutting paper. Unless I work, I don’t find anything. The more time I spend here, the better.

ART21: But that’s not what propels you to be here.

HERRERA: Right. I come to the studio to be able to create an image that will have a certain impact. All artists look at other artists from the past and admire some artists greatly because they had the courage to try—the power to be able to go into this other scale, or this combination of colors, or what have you. To be able to join them eventually is, first of all, a challenge. You want to get there (maybe I will never get there), but it just keeps you going—that you might be able to participate in this dance with these other people.

If I make an image that is strong enough or generous enough to some viewers, then my job is done. I’m happy with the image; I feel it’s a strong image. And, if it actually provides some kind of emotional and intellectual nourishment or idea to the viewer, then my job is done. That’s what keeps me going.

Is it possible to create an image that will have any impact now, with the multiplicity of images today, with the Internet and digital cameras and film and video? I think there are still images that people have not seen and that will be powerful enough to be able to send different messages. What kind of images these are, I don’t know. I’m trying to get there; I’m trying to find them. I don’t know what they look like. So, I come to the studio to dissect them from other fragments.