Berlin is so covered with graffiti that you hardly notice it any more. When there is enough of it, or when it’s good, it looks like it belongs to the surface it’s painted on. Arturo Herrera’s two simultaneous Berlin exhibitions were entangled in the line between graffiti and wall painting, raising the question: does the artist’s mark add to its surface or deface it? And what happens when those marks are abstract, or abstracted?
Herrera’s wall paintings, collages and photographs don’t look like graffiti, but they are deployed in a similar way. His foreground patterns resemble abstracted brushstrokes or a child’s scribbles. Yet these marks have been enlarged, extracted or translated into the idea of the artist’s gesture, rather than the original mark itself. Herrera couples these shapes with scenery borrowed from mass culture, such as colouring books or Disney cartoons. Like a graffiti artist, he literally inserts his expressive mark into an artistic landscape that already exists.
At daadgalerie Herrera covered the walls with a pattern of narrow red and white vertical stripes (Untitled, all works 2005), less industrial than Daniel Buren’s and less disorienting than Bridget Riley’s. The optical effect of the overall pattern is intermittently interrupted by Herrera’s scattered designs of scrappy red marks. Although these formally resemble bloody gashes or holes torn in the wall, they are actually more like holes torn in the striped pattern itself. The artist defaces his own surface pattern with another one – one that looks more like an artist’s hasty brushstroke but is in fact no less mechanically made. Both were designed by Herrera but executed by professional painters.
Next door, on an empty exterior wall of Galerie Max Hetzler’s main space in Zimmerstrasse, beside an abandoned lot (a popular site in Berlin for graffiti), Herrera produced his own imitation of graffiti, hiring a painter to apply it near the top of the building (Untitled, Wall Painting for Berlin). The work is a low-lying design in black paint, like a distant landscape of shadowy ruins or irregular rock formations. More likely, though, the pattern is an abstraction of something much closer to it – the shapes formed by the erosion of the building near its foundation, where the façade is chipped away and falling off. Herrera’s graffiti isn’t a tag as we know it, but rather echoes the surface it is painted on.
In Galerie Max Hetzler’s second space in Holzmarktstrasse, the artist produced a drawing on the permanently installed free-standing wall opposite the entrance (Untitled). Its surface looked surprisingly ghostly, like what’s left on a building after graffiti is washed off. The pattern of red and black dots looked smeared and reminiscent, like the trace of a drawing, which isn’t far from the truth – it was created from a tracing of tiny holes onto the surface of the wall, which were then filled with pigment. Whatever stuck in the holes helped the design materialize; whatever fell to the ground lay in a neat pile beneath the wall.
From afar the pattern looked like loose strands of tiny dots wandering across the wall, twisting, mingling, swelling and constricting, or looping lazily like a mess of tangled wire or a system of capillaries. But even these scrawls are abstracted from their origins; we know they were laboriously plotted and designed by Herrera, so they can’t be the spontaneous gestures they pose as. Out of this tangle recognizable shapes materialize: the fragments of a Disney cartoon castle appears, with its towers stretching towards cloudy skies and a winding road leading to its drawbridge.
These iconic images, emerging from Herrera’s trademarked scribbled pattern, are reminiscent of a child filling in a colouring book, trying to be skilled enough to stay in the lines but ending up with something less than perfect. But these lines are meticulously constructed attempts to master the mistakes of an imperfect hand without sacrificing the illusion of the expressionistic gesture. But that’s why this wall drawing is so successful – you get the sense that the materials didn’t entirely co-operate. The pigment is smeared and the dots don’t always overlap, hinting that this time the realization may deviate from his intended design. Mistakes, rather than just the suggestion of mistakes, are what make this particular wall painting resemble the child’s drawing that it imitates.
On a nonetheless flat surface Herrera manages to foreground his abstract gestures, and – more impressively – without making them ironic. He makes his designs theatrical, but not using the language of the Abstract Expressionists, whose theatrical process you could discern. The surfaces he uses are ‘sets’ for designs that act like characters rather than materials. In the struggle between the artist’s hand and what these characters want to do, Herrera shows he has wrestled control of the medium while still letting it show that he put up a fight.