Getting a little help from friends

Collaborative workshop brings walls, floors and ceilings to life


Federico Herrero made a splash with his wall paintings of weirdly morphed animals at the 2001 Venice Biennale and, at age 22, became the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious art fair’s Golden Lion Award. In the wake of that success, the Costa Rican-born painter garnered international representation (showing in Tokyo with the Gallery Koyanagi), and was invited to the Aichi Expo this year, where he painted world maps on the bottom of two artificial ponds.

It is apparent when talking to the personable Herrero that he loves to paint, especially on surfaces other than canvases. While in Japan for the Expo, he also took the opportunity to cover the exteriors of city buses — one in Kanazawa City and two buses in a town in Yamagata Prefecture — with his often-fanciful designs.

Herrero’s latest project is “Live Surfaces,” a solo show now at the Watari-Um Museum in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.

The show is dominated by a painting of semi-abstract figures and color fields set against a sky-blue background on the 7-meter-high wall of the museum’s second-floor atrium. “Live Surfaces” is at once a celebration of involvement, immediacy and interaction in the realization of creative expression.

There was no opening party for the exhibition, which opened late in October. Instead, the Watari-Um held a reception for artist and friends last Saturday, Nov. 26.

“The idea was to have an open structure,” said Herrero, with a smile. “From the start, I wanted to have people participating in workshops and collaborating on some of the works. Usually when you go to a museum everything is fixed, but I think I succeeded in my goal of doing the exact opposite here.”

The workshops Herrero refers to were not advertised in any way, but were open to anyone who visited the show during the first three weeks. All comers were told they could return to the museum at 5 p.m. and participate.

Each evening about a half-dozen or so people turned up — art students and art lovers, neighborhood people, parents with their kids in tow. A trio of those kids who had participated in the workshop arrived at the party Saturday evening, and ran over to throw their arms round Herrero, smiles stretched wide across their faces.

The workshops were more than talk — they also helped build the exhibition. In the center of the second floor gallery, a set of what resemble dripping plant roots spill off a room divider. These, crude as they are, were done by workshop participants. Also here, blood-red paint seeps over the top of the divider. This continues throughout the exhibition to challenge perceptions of where the art ends and the walls, floor and ceiling begin.

There are a number of careful large canvas pieces up as well, this is no splotch fest after all, and Herrero’s signature cartoonish line-drawn animals and creatures are in evidence.

We find three cotton hammocks strung from pillars on the museum’s third floor (which visitors can climb into) where the lower half of the wall is painted yellow and the top half white. Notably, this bisection line is the only hard edge in the show, everywhere else the color patches are textured in design, and imprecise in form.

Overall, compared to our Japanese Neo-Pop art, this is a far more organic exploration of creative freedom. The fact that Herrero does not seem to take himself too seriously may be the reason why his work possesses this honest appeal.

Finally, on the fourth floor we have 10 small works on canvas of candy-colored line figures which together loosely depict faces. This part of the exhibition is the closest to white-cube-gallery conformity — although, as if he were a little uncomfortable with that feeling, Herrero has mounted several of these paintings at knee level, and has aerosol-sprayed red streaks here and there on the walls.

Also up on floor four is a photo slide show running on a small LCD monitor — snapshots of pedestrian crosswalks and street traffic flow indicators, the documentation of which being one of Herrero’s pet projects. These are surprisingly rich and engaging — I would have liked to see a wallfull of prints.

With “Live Surfaces” Herrero has put something special, something alive in the Watari-Um. This is a buoyant show full of upbeat feelings, riding a riot of color and positive energy — drop in for a visual antidote to the cold gray winter now closing in on Tokyo.