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Cartoons in the Void


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Arturo Herrera: (Un)Conscious Articulations

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through January 31

Drew Harris: The Disclosure Series

at Lydon Fine Art, through February 18

By Fred Camper

In Hollywood cartoons of the 40s and 50s and in certain comic books of the 50s, a male confronted by an attractive female often sprouts bulging eyeballs and shooting limbs--sometimes he even bounces around the space. Parodying male desire, these humorous phallic eruptions also exaggerate the qualities of most cartoon images: curved lines and bright colors give objects an attention-getting importance as shapes assert their presence, drawing the eye into a fetishized pleasure in objects.

A similar assertion of object power informs Arturo Herrera's 50 untitled collage drawings at the Art Institute. (Other Herrera collages can be seen on-line at index.html.) But Herrera also negates this fetishized presentation of objects, as his shapes turn back on themselves, undercutting their own forms--even diffusing into or confronting empty space. Each collage is a kind of puzzle in which these two contradictory impulses are locked in an eternal dance. Cutting out images from coloring books and other children's books, Herrera not only adds his own drawings but fragments the imagery, at once affirming and denying its pleasantly bulging cartooniness.

At times there's a gentle humor in Herrera's duet of affirmation and denial. A Santa face, complete with beard but lacking hair, lies in the arms of a giant chair. But Santa's bulbous red nose, pointing upward with self-conscious cuteness, is dwarfed by the cutout chair's mostly black-and-white back, its floral pattern nearly subsumed by gray--at first glance it might even be mistaken for a rock formation. The indistinct allover pattern serves as a counterpoint to the much smaller but more attention-getting Santa. In another collage three large gray masses are eventually recognizable as elephants with their backs to us, forcing us to contemplate what usually emanates from rear ends--reminding us that the creatures depicted in cartoons have a physicality that cartoons ignore or distort.

Herrera, a longtime Chicagoan born in Caracas in 1959 and now living in New York, made these collages while preparing an exhibit presented a year ago at the Renaissance Society; the collages were not sketches for the installations there but served as more abstract source material. The exhibit was notable for its use of empty space--a work might occupy a tiny portion of a vast wall--just as these collages, though on a much smaller scale, counterpose their diminutive cartoon elements with solid color patterns and blank paper.

Humor is more evident in the collages, however, and the themes of phallic pride and its failure are more explicit. A man's feet can be seen on one rung of a ladder apparently leaning against a tree; right above it is another image of the same ladder and tree but apparently upside-down--the man is gone, and the implied movement is now downward, as an imagined ascent meets its opposite. Crossing the mostly white background are light and dark blue horizontal stripes, which recall not only the ladder but art making. Animated cartoons and comics are of course full of images of flying, appealing to the childhood desire to escape gravity, to be Superman. But Herrera's stripes deflect attention from a literal ascent to his own abstraction of the ladder--one finds refuge from the failed climb of the collaged image in the abstract power of art.

In most works here, curves and fragments of shapes seem to collide, collapsing inward rather than exploding. In one piece a chocolate ice cream bar replaces Donald Duck's head, emerging from his collar--giving the figure an oddly squashed feel even though the ice cream bar's stick points upward and the duck seems to waddle forward happily on its blue cloud.

Herrera's works are not far from surrealism, and the exhibit title mentions the unconscious; just as cartoons appeal to childhood fantasies of power, so many collages here depict childhood fears. Herrera's figures are sometimes headless or otherwise dismembered; in one piece a girl's hand holds a mailbox that looks like a hatchet. A sense of dread underlies many of his juxtapositions. He cuts off at the top a "perfect" living room, probably from about 1948, complete with sofas, bookshelves, carpeting, and a bowl of apples; above it a motor home seems to be colliding with a giant apple, which echoes the well-ordered bowl though its large size and abstracted red shape suggest sensuality gone wild. Meanwhile the motor home seems to push the apple and a cute badger into the lower image, threatening the civilized domestic scene with the vibrant red and "wild" nature.

Most powerful, though, is the way Herrera balances his cartoon images not only with their fragmented negations but also with the idea of a void, as in the large apple's hypertrophy of red, the empty spaces around figures, and the way the elephants' rears seem a solid mass of gray. The opposite of object power is in fact this absence--an allover field with no distinctions. In one collage Herrera amusingly literalizes this idea, as four cute furry animals look into empty space, for their forest scene is a cutout. Yet these furry aficionados of color-field painting seem to see beyond their own cuteness to its opposite: hovering before them are two rectangles, one brown and the other blue.

Often Herrera uses emptiness more subtly, as a kind of undertone that's half comforting and half terrifying. A bright red bedspread first calls attention to the bed it covers, but a tangle of shapes around the pillow form a conflicting nexus of directions and associations. A large pinkish blob--a monsterlike materialization of childhood nightmares--hovers above the pillow, while an adult male leg seems to emerge from the sheets, hinting at molestation or primal-scene memories. The suggestion of a building in the background is accompanied by a hook on ropes of the kind that might support a window washer's platform, though here it dangles over the bed, surrounded by emptiness. This suspension suggests a removal from the quotidian, granting the imagination free rein--hence the monsters--but it also connects the work to the solid colors and emptiness that permeate this series.

Our sense that the bed is floating, adrift and unmoored, undercuts all the specific shapes it contains, their disconnectedness making them seem strangely arbitrary. The drone of the void is in fact where Herrera's undercuttings all lead, as these highly original works improbably pair Hollywood cartoons with a meditation on self-abnegation and silence.

The 15 paintings by Drew Harris at Lydon, 14 of them from his "Disclosure" series, also present a duality of substance and emptiness, though in very different terms. Harris--born in 1960 in Toronto and living there now--paints large, densely layered canvases of abstract shapes, small marks, and mostly illegible writing. A former graphic designer who specialized in corporate-identity work, Harris has been a full-time artist since 1990. Perhaps partly in reaction to his commercial work, he offers few concrete, self-contained shapes, and when he does, he undercuts their solidity; like Herrera, he denies his own forms.

Most of Harris's paintings combine the same elements in different ways. Large fields of splotchy colors, sometimes containing traces of other colors, are built up in layers to create strong depth effects; some shapes are partly discrete, partly diffuse; and a dense cursive script covers much of the painting's surface. As We Speak is mostly cream-colored with a black "cloud" near the top and a red cross at top center, a frayed combination of multiple brush strokes. The black cloud narrows to a vertical black band down the painting's center, seemingly dividing the space into the two pages of a book; one side of the band is sharp-edged, the other fuzzy. The faint writing is illegible because of poor "penmanship" and because it's incised into wet paint, causing the edges to blur; Harris later rubs the paint to blur the writing further.

The indistinct writing gives these works the appearance of splendid ruins, lost tablets from a vanished civilization; legibility's failure here makes the paintings seem records of decay. At times Harris's incising reveals a darker ground beneath, making the letters stand out, while at others the lack of contrast makes the writing almost invisible. In Intimate Memories II, the writing is barely discernible against its black and red fields. A thin red line to the left vanishes at the bottom in a reddish fog, while a larger white band next to it becomes increasingly broken toward the bottom, its tiny breaks revealing the underlying colors. A fragment of writing at the right is enclosed in what looks like a red window with jail bars. The writing here is not only buried, the colors themselves are blood red and black, suggesting life and death--or, more terrifying, life becoming death. A great silence seems to absorb all human efforts at differentiation through language or any other kind of mark making.

The "Disclosure" series has an autobiographical source. The writing is based on Harris's memories of recent phone conversations with his father, who's afflicted with advanced dementia and has mostly lost his ability to speak. Harris told me that the paintings are his "way of saying good-bye," representing the "quiet conversation" with his father he's unable to have in life.

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