Irving Herrera: A Fresh New Face on the Oaxaca Art Scene

By Gail Lusby

If you want to know what the next generation of young Oaxacan artists is up to, this is a show you should see. Irving Herrera, the artist, just turned 30. The departure his work represents from what is commonly referred to as the Oaxaca School of painting could not be more startling and yes, it must be said, welcome. (The Oaxaca school is constituted by several generations of painters inspired first by Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales and later by Francisco Toledo).

In the last few years, with the possible exception of the late Alejandro Santiago, the work produced in this once exciting art center had become predictable to say the least.

A whole new generation of artists born in the mid 1980s is busily reinventing the artistic soul of the city. Considering the events of the last few years, it is not entirely surprising.

These are the very artists who came of age during the Oaxaca conflict of 2006 and created the prodigious artistic output for which the rebellion is now famous. Their active participation in the uprising tested their commitment and their courage. For the most part, they come from modest backgrounds and the most remote corners of the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, and Veracruz; for them going to art school was both a dream and a luxury. Consequently, they cherish their gift, work hard and are well aware of the transformational power of art: it changed their lives.

In spite of his quiet and unassuming manner, Irving Herrera is fast emerging as the leader of this talented and eager pack. His work is already being recognized far afield and his prints have been exhibited in Argentina, Brazil (where he was invited at age 28 to give master classes), Japan, Spain, and Portugal, and invitations are pouring in from the United States and Asia.

Like many of his fellow artists, Irving studied with Shinzaburo Takeda, the Japanese painter and print maker who moved to Oaxaca in the early ‘70s and became the dean of the city´s leading art school for three decades. In addition to pursuing an artistic career of his own, Takeda lovingly nurtured several generations of artists and taught them a quintessentially Japanese art: woodblock printing. Thanks to his tutelage, wood engraving has become the medium of choice among the city’s young artists. It requires exceptional dexterity but supplies are cheap, making it the perfect technique for the gifted but still impecunious.

This year, Maestro Takeda, as he is respectfully called in Oaxaca, bestowed the prize that bears his name to Irving Herrera. In a symbolic gesture, he also gave him a set of his best Japanese gouges, handing over the baton.

Come see the show and you will immediately understand why the Japanese master chose to give his precious tools to this young artist.

Thirteen paintings and 14 prints are exhibited showing the exceptional fluency of the artist in both media. Wood block printing on that scale—most works are at least 100cm x100cm or 40” x 40” —is not for the faint-hearted. Not only does the artist work backwards, but the smallest clumsy nick irretrievably ruins the whole piece. Unbelievably, Irving works the wood without as much as a sketch, carving out the negative spaces from an inner vision. (In woodblock printing the remaining relief becomes the image once inked and printed).

This exhibition shows a series of large feminine portraits. In his skillful hands, his tenderness for women´s faces becomes palpable. He has many models: his wife Eva—an excellent artist in her own right—friends, women met on the street, or tourists who wander in and, seeing his work, offer to model. In “Señoras Matanzas” his sitters are adorned with extraordinary—churrigueresque could be a word—headdresses made of rams’ horns and sheeps’ skulls. In Irving´s work, the feminine becomes powerful, mysterious, and baroque. And yet, it is the eyes that mesmerize. No portrait is alike; the gaze of each woman conveys her own particular state of mind: one is mischievous, the other is defiant, another is pensive while yet another coolly assesses you. Irving’s passion it seems is the many feminine moods, a rather unusual trait in a man!

Subject aside, this rare mix of skill, artistic maturity, and freshness of vision makes for a heady brew. Here is someone to watch.

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