Arturo Herrera and the Modernism of Walt Disney

Ballroom Marfa
Mar 21, 2014 5:37PM

On the surface, Arturo Herrera’s two works in Comic Future88 DIA (1998) and Untitled(2001), look quite different. 88 DIA is a large colorful mural composed of a number of images. Though they at first appear somewhat abstract, the images quickly come into focus. A large potted plant topped by a red, spiky flower sits against a bright blue background. In the foreground, three cartoon birds fly above the figure of a girl. Although her head is hidden (or has been removed), she seems familiar.

Untitled also transforms the longer one focuses on it. At first it appears to be a large, black and white squiggle, somewhat reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. It quickly becomes apparent that the entire drawing is composed of various recognizable shapes — namely some of the same shapes seen in 88 DIA. This is because both works use the same source material: Walt Disney’s 1937 classic, Snow White.

It is impressive that Herrera is able to disguise, even momentarily, such iconic images; but what is even more interesting is why he uses them at all. It is nothing new for an artist to take a familiar image and place it in a work of art; often, when one does so it is to critique and criticize what that image represents. As Roland Barthes notes in Mythologies: “the idols of consumer culture, car, refrigerator or screen goddess, have a totemic power in the modern age.” (Translated in S. Greeves, “The Language of the Wall”(MA Diss., the Courtauld Institute of Art, 1995), 29.) The most direct and effective way to break that power is by changing and subverting it. (see Sergei Chakhotin’s The Rape of the Masses: The Psychology of Totalitarian Political Propaganda, 1940)

Herrera, however, does not use these images expressly for the purpose of negation. Rather, they relate to his interest in modernism and its ideal of universality. In addition to Herrera’s various aesthetic references to modernism (his use of collage techniques and found material, as well as allusions to various artistic movements including surrealism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop-art, and the affichistes, to name a few), the artist confirms that he is strongly attracted to the conceptual ideas behind modernism, particularly the belief that art is universal. As he explains in an interview: “Modernism’s boundless optimism and idealism created exciting visual realities. Some of these propositions failed or are no longer valid…. The key is to have a critical dialogue with this legacy.” Thus, while Herrera is attracted to these ideals, he differs in how he accomplishes them. While the modern artist hoped to create a work that could instantaneously convey its meaning through abstraction, Herrera uses the figurative and familiar to establish a “connection” and give the viewer something of which to grab hold: Snow White.

It is important to note that when Disney was first founded, the company’s work was seen as extremely modern. So much so that Sergei Eisenstein once declared Disney’s animations to be “the greatest contribution of the American people to art.” Walt Disney also shared in the modernist’s ideal of creating a universal art by appealing to our shared childhood. As he explained while defending his fantastical stories and imagery: “Everybody in the world was once a child. We grow up. Our personalities change, but in every one of us something remains of our childhood…. It just seems that if your picture hits that spot with one person, it’s going to hit that spot in almost everybody.” Herrera uses the same technique to entice the viewer into his work, the difference is that once one enters, Herrera, unlike Disney, no longer guides you. As he notes: “My work actually tries to discourage a specific message. It tries to free a place up, to clarify through ambiguity….You read the image very easily, but in the end, you are on your own.”

Comic Future was on view at Ballroom Marfa from September 27, 2013-February 2, 2014. It will travel to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and be on view from May 17 through August 3, 2014.

Ballroom Marfa