New York

Arturo Herrera

Arturo Herrera’s cryptic work coaxes us deep into psychologial woods, where, like the children in the fairy tales that inspire him, we’re forced to rely on instinct and imagination to find our way. In the wall painting, photographs, works on paper, sculpture, and reliefs recently on view, what was concealed or absent bore as much weight as what was visible, leaving the viewer to complete the picture with his or her own resources.

Many of the twenty-three collages on view (all works 2000) demonstrated Herrera’s penchant for cartoons, coloring books, and other childhood sources; one piece included intersecting violet lines attributable to the hero in the children’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Herrera’s work attempts to rekindle a childlike state of mind in adults: to awaken the facility not just for conjuring something from nothing (like Harold) but also for giving in to the passions and perversions we learn to repress as we mature. In the background of another collage—a page swiped from a picture book—cutesy animal eyes peer through knotholes in a wooden fence, staring at a levitating, looping brown line (the artist’s addition). A really long, floating turd? Surely I’m not the only adult to engage in such childish speculation. In a discernible shift from Herrera’s earlier collages, which incorporated mutated but identifiable fragments from Disney characters and folklore figures, many of the works here reduced the juvenilia to pure abstraction. In one, a gritty, dark mass of watercolor overlapping a wash of pale gray seemed to evoke the basic struggle between good and evil. In some cases, the seeking-shapes-in-the-clouds approach seemed unjustified, as in a watercolor comprising stacked horizontal brushstrokes—elegantly yet eccentrically minimalist.

Despite its showy scale and barrage of kiddie colors, the five-by-seven-foot collage Stay was the least compelling piece in the exhibition. It seemed schematic and formulaic: Reduce cartoonish shapes into flat, saturated elements; pulverize and layer into an impressively jumbled composition. Much better was All I Ask, a cinematic, phantasmagoric rendering in pencil of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a riot of rubbery body parts. Near the right edge of the piece, reinforcing the sense of spectacle, a tassel hinted that the curtain on this show could be brought down at any time. Somewhere in between—compelling yes; accessible, not exactly—were At Your Side, a large-scale felt wall work, and Hurry Home, Blue, a cardboard sculpture painted serene blue. The former hung low, literally at one’s side, with the barest horizon line and an allover riot of “scribblings,” precision-cut from black felt, suggesting a landscape (a forest or swamp) or, harking back to Abstract Expressionism, orchestrated chaos. Lying nearby on the floor, Hurry Home, Blue was basically a line constructed in three dimensions, as if to indicate a path, albeit a directionless one: Which way is home?

Fraught with niggling riddles, coyly tucked-away mysteries, and sly, silent enigmas, Herrera’s work refuses to yield any easy interpretations or answers. Indeed, if there is an answer, it’s buried in the viewer’s mind, not that of the artist—packed away with a lot of other deep-seated psychological muck.

Julie Caniglia