This much is true: Murals are Costa Rican artist Frederico Herrero’s strong suit. He has painted them on the walls of fishing huts in Basel, Switzerland, and on the walls of rooftop structures in Athens, Greece. And when he painted one at the Venice Biennale in 2001—the premiere survey of international art—the judges gave him the Golden Lion Award for Best Young Artist. In his current show at Bridgette Mayer Gallery, however, the boldness of Herrero’s painting loses a little steam in translation from wall to canvas.
There’s a strange buckling visible in the canvases where the fabric shirks the mandate of the concrete flatness of a wall. Herrero’s failure to account for this makes his insistently flat imagery struggle against its voluminous support. The paintings might make more sense on walls or other public structures, where their sunny colors would stand out from a distance or cause architectural elements to pop where you’d least expect them to.
Although his work has been shown all over the world, this is Herrero’s first solo exhibition of paintings in the U.S. While certain patches of paint are more heavily textured with brushwork than others, the overall effect is of a surface so colorful and flat a graphic designer might swoon at the resemblance between Herrero’s palette and a spread of Pantone color samples. His gumdrops of color cluster together like Pinky, Inky and Blinky of Pac-Man, and are often overlaid with small cartoon figures that add a dash of “cuteness” to his otherwise abstract compositions (and may account for his popularity in Japan). But for as much as Herrero riffs on the computer screen, he also litters these sleek surfaces with curly cues of spray paint that moonlight as modest tags—calling cards from the street artist within.
The streets have long served as an arena for Herrero’s interventions. He began painting murals on walls and storefronts and releasing small, handcrafted objects into the urban fray (just to see what happened to them) after dropping out of the Pratt Institute in New York and landing back in his native Costa Rica. His first big splash was at the 49th Venice Biennale, where he was commissioned to paint a large mural. “I was shocked!” recalls Herrero, “I was very young and it was my first international show.” Invited to represent Costa Rica at the tender age of 22, Herrero says his mural painting (which came out of years of toggling between street art and a studio practice) seemed comically low-tech compared with the high production veneer of most of the works he observed around him. “I felt like a caveman painting a wall,” he says.
At Bridgette Mayer, you can see Herrero’s reluctance to scale down a practice that works best large. Although the Bridgette Mayer Gallery was recently renovated to double its previous size, Herrero’s work just barely fits. That’s because 3,000 square feet is pocket change for an artist used to slapping paint on large expanses of urban concrete. His attraction to working outside seems to be precisely what’s missing form the gallery: “Originally, I placed objects in public space and was interested in losing control,” he explains. What interests him now, with his highly controlled, gallery-grade paintings is a little less clear.
Two site-specific wall murals were still in progress when I visited the gallery during installation. Herrero’s hands were speckled in green paint and a series of wet, green lozenges were already forming on the ceiling above the gallery desk. Given his ease with painting in three-dimensional space, it’s tempting to speculate that these murals might turn out to be the strongest works in the show. If so, then go see Herrero in his element, sparking bland walls with a full-spectrum douse of unexpected color.
Through Feb. 25. Bridgette Mayer Gallery, 709 Walnut St. 215.413.8893. bridgettemayergallery.com