Herman Aguirre explores the corporeal nature of memory in his exhibition at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. His work is a testimonial to a community struggling with violence, those that witness this struggle and the desire to remember those who have died. His goal is to create portraiture from absence, to revivify objects made from longing.
Aguirre was raised in the Back of the Yards, where, he has stated, that violence is “visible throughout.” He encounters street memorials in his neighborhood, where he is reminded of “those who are no longer with us but around us. Their presence is felt in the parks, the alleys, the roads and the walkways.” Aguirre has transformed these memorials, resurrecting them in oil and acrylic paint. “Agua y Aceite,” or “Oil and Water,” is a collection of paintings and drawings that Aguirre has constructed with a sculptural and painterly gestalt. The resulting objects emerge in deep, impasto relief from the walls, nearly belying the oil and water-based materials from which they are derived.
“Turquesa|4703,” depicts a pedestrian scene almost lost to time. The edge of a muddy brick wall opens to reveal a sliver of darkening sky and silhouetted trees pressed between a telephone pole balanced on the left side of the painting. The pole is festooned with ephemera, deflated and torn balloons, an aging plastic carnation, indecipherable ribbons and colored paper. It is a memorial eroded from time and weather, the elements creating an act of forgetting. In this painting, Aguirre demonstrates that perhaps it is the artist’s work to reclaim memory from obliteration.
Aguirre’s paintings require close looking. They pulse and surge organically from the wall, sometimes extending out three or four inches. They are inscribed, cut and built up in sandy, lumpen gestures, as if the artist is creating life from clay. He also uses skins from dried paint cans or palettes to build up surfaces that echo busted balloons or worn out wires and rope. Leaning in, Aguirre paints postage stamp-size portraits and photos of victims and family members that viewers can only observe from inches away. The paintings vacillate between being autonomous, sculptural objects and representational paintings, depending on where the viewer stands in relation to them. It is an uncanny experience at times.
The largest painting in the exhibition, “Poliéster/Polyester|1448;1450,” shows the worn wall and window of a building, focusing on a rusted drain pipe. The pipe has been decorated with red polyester flowers tied with blue ribbon. The shadow of a tree lengthens across a darkening, purple wall. The flowers are for a twelve-year-old boy who was killed at that location in 2003. He was mistaken for a gang member. Shadows and light reflect the time of day that the murder took place. The composition is large, leaving the isolated flowers near the center to look even more fragile.
The exhibition also includes drawings, ink studies on paper. Aguirre is a confident draughtsman, and these pieces are clear descriptions of the larger works. That said, their clarity does not communicate the psychological weight of the fully realized paintings. They feel cold in comparison.
Ultimately, Aguirre has created a group of artworks that function as specific narratives that simultaneously have a universal impact. Their narrative details contain multitudes of truth, but those truths are communicated equally through color, form and volume. It is remarkable. (Rafael Francisco Salas)
Note: Both Aguirre and the author have exhibited at Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee.
“Agua y Aceite,” Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, 325 West Huron, through January 8, 2022.