by Georgia Erger
I. An Introduction to Invention as Practice
Gina Herrera’s delicate assemblage sculptures are composed of disparate and often contradictory materials. She painstakingly collects and salvages manmade debris, interweaving the found objects with natural materials to create elegant, anthropomorphic sculptures. The natural and manmade materials are bound together so intimately, that the debris becomes as integral to the beauty of the piece as the carefully selected fragments from nature. Herrera’s practice is defiantly interventionist. By reclaiming manmade debris that overwhelms our environment, she is diminishing our ecological footprint and reducing the volume of waste destined for landfills. It is through this process that she aggressively challenges the autonomy the artist and the art object are traditionally afforded. This essay will explore how Herrera’s role as environmental activist both informs her practice and radicalizes the art objects she creates. I will discuss the ways in which she continues the (albeit recent) historical practice of utilizing unconventional, impoverished materials and re-envisions the art object’s relationship to its site and its viewer. Herrera’s practice can be understood as both stemming and diverging from a particular historic art movement: Arte Povera. Coined by Germano Celant in 1967, Arte Povera literally means “poor art,” and refers to the nature of the materials the artists tended to use, which were readily available, and frequently from nature. Herrera’s oeuvre is the aesthetic corollary to this influential movement, yet her interventionist practice and unorthodox relationship to the “readily available” materials she utilizes diverges significantly from Arte Povera.
II. Material Reclamation
Herrera has served in the United States Military for over twenty years and is currently an Army Reserve Officer. During her service in Iraq, she encountered seemingly endless heaps of waste and debris. It was this visceral experience of staggering environmental devastation that sparked her interventionist practice. Since then, Herrera has taken on the role of activist, collecting her materials from a wide array of sites and picking up debris as she encounters it. She occasionally incorporates objects that hold personal or sentimental value to her – pieces of her husband’s or mother’s clothing or her own army badges – but most often, the physical act of reclamation is more significant than the symbolic value of the materials.
Herrera’s sculptures strike a delicate balance between chaos and cohesion. Brightly colored fabrics and fibers are abundantly wound around pieces of wood and metal. Plastic, fabrics, wire, and assorted found objects are enveloped and bound within. Strands of human hair, feathers, and even flowers are woven in, emerging from the structures almost haphazardly. There is a palpable tension in the works resulting from the jumbled materials – between the natural and plastic materials, the unifying whole and its disparate parts – that mimics the artist’s panic over the destruction of our environment. Arte Povera artists too explored a similar tension in their work, but it was largely between permanence and decay, as their “readily available” materials were largely natural materials. Herrera makes a strong statement about the current state of our environment in asserting that her “readily available” materials are (mostly) manmade debris.
Just as Herrera’s sculptures hover between chaos and cohesion, so too do they grapple between abstraction and figuration. The suggestion of a human figure emerges, twisting and dancing, from the abstracted forms of her sculptures. Rocking for the Future assumes an elegant contrapposto pose from which a torso, arms, and elongated neck are easily identifiable. A Barbie leg protruding out of A Parody of Frilliness and a salvaged shoe incorporated into the base of A Salutation to All alludes to these anthropomorphic gestures with innocent wit. The shadows cast on the floor and walls further accentuate the corporeal forms of the sculptures. When the shadows flicker, it seems to suggest that the sculptures are poised on the brink of independent movement. Herrera creates her sculptures from the base upwards, incorporating materials piece by piece, and allowing the form to appear organically. She eliminates any mediating plinths that would elevate the works, instead placing the artwork on a contiguous plane with the viewer. Arte Povera artists first did this to challenge the notion of the traditional and venerated art object that is placed above or beyond the viewer. They sought to ensure that the viewer no longer needed to stand – literally or metaphorically – beneath their work in order to understand it. Herrera eliminates the plinth to shatter a similar hierarchy, but in this case between object and environment. The placement directly on the floor suggests that the sculpture emerges fluidly from ground. In this way, she is paying homage to her practice of reclamation, allowing the materials to meaningfully engage with their environment, rather than overwhelm and pollute it, as in their previous siting.
III. The Object/Environment & Subject/Viewer Dichotomies
The importance Herrera attributes to site specificity is a continuation of the radicalism of Arte Povera. The evolution from (or rejection of) the conventions of easel painting releases art from its dependence on the frame and allows for the possibility of art engaging with something beyond itself: space. Herrera’s sculptures not only engage with their surrounding space; they depend upon it. She states that her sculptures maintain only the illusion of balance, and that their real balance is derived from the balance of the earth. In his re-evaluation of the site specificity of artistic production and consumption, Douglas Crimp suggests that all works of art necessarily belong to their site. This is inescapable for Herrera, whose works depend upon their origins outside of the gallery to spark their true meaning and purpose. The sculptures are meant to coexist with nature and are created with the intention of healing our environment through the reclamation of debris. As such, they “belong,” to use Crimp’s language, to a much larger site: the earth.
The relationship between subject and viewer is just as relevant to Herrera’s work as the relationship between object and environment. The anthropomorphic sculptures allude to movement in their form, but are only coaxed into real movement by the presence of the viewer. Rocking for the Future is balanced upon two spindly, warped legs. The thin wire base of Out of Frequency only makes contact with the floor at three points. Both support the weight of substantial reclaimed materials and quiver unapologetically in response to movement on the gallery floor. Similarly, three pieces of string dangle from the end of the dramatically arced structure of Unearthing a Vision and sway in response to the slightest external force. This adds an element of chance to the works that prohibit them from being static or completely within the control of the artist. Arte Povera artist, Jannis Kounellis explored this radical relationship between art object and gallery space, subject and viewer, in his 1969 work, Untitled (Twelve Horses). He tethered twelve live horses to the walls of a private gallery in Rome for three consecutive days. The horses, which by their very nature are uncontrollable, interacted uniquely with the gallery space and each viewer. Every glance by a viewer represented a unique point in the episodic situation of the piece. Kounellis, as creator, gave over control in favor of interaction, allowing the viewer to become the co-creator of the work. Herrera too dispels the notion of herself as absolute creator and allows her sculptures an agency of their own to interact with the viewer and their environment. However, Herrera does not allow her sculptures to wield any dominance over their environment: where the reclaimed debris once dominated and polluted the earth, it is now responsive and submissive to it. In this way, her interventionist practice diverges from Arte Povera and works such as Untitled (Twelve Horses) that engage with a specific site but make no attempt to be submissive to it.
IV. Spirituality as Agency
Herrera’s exploration of her Tesuque heritage has informed her relationship with nature and influenced her interventionist practice. The assemblage composition of her sculptures, as well as their proclivity towards movement, merits a connection to Tesuque ritual dance that features elaborate costumes composed of natural materials. The Tesuque dancers are barefoot so that they may receive spirits from the earth; furthermore, one foot most often remains rooted to the floor in order to maintain this connection to the earth. Herrera states that her practice too is a collaboration between herself and “some spiritual interception”: her artistic interventions both honor the beauty and acknowledge the power of Mother Nature. She further distances herself from the role of absolute creator – or artist as unique genius – by asserting that her sculptures are spiritual beings in and of themselves. When describing them, she admits that with a bit of imagination they could come alive. In his seminal text, Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty criticizes art movements such as Cubism that relegated artistic output to the singular space of the canvas and venerated the individual artist as genius. He suggests that movements such as Cubism, and even Abstract Expressionism, failed to “enter into a dialogue with the wall beyond.” This is perhaps not entirely fair, as artists such as Picasso, Braque, and Rauschenberg notably engaged with collage, found object, and even performance. However, Herrera most effectively answers O’Doherty’s call for engagement by creating art objects that interact with their site (as explored in the previous section) and most importantly, can be imbued by external – in this case, spiritual – forces.
Herrera challenges traditional associations of art and religion by introducing spirituality into her works. Arte Povera artists too, sought to subvert the religious reverence that has enjoyed prominence throughout art history. This is most apparent in Michelangelo Pistoletto’s, Venus with the Rags (1967-69) in which the artist situated a mass-produced garden center statue of a classical Venus amidst a pile of rags. By reorienting the previously venerated goddess’ face towards the rags, Pistoletto mocks this object of religious and aesthetic devotion. Unlike Pistoletto, Herrera does not ridicule or degrade traditional religion or religious art; instead she presents an alternative spirituality through her work and practice. The rags, the waste material that Pistoletto uses, demean the Venus figure. The waste material that Herrera collects is repurposed – interwoven seamlessly with the natural materials – and elevated from its previous role as environmental pollutant.
V. Conclusion: Intervention as Homage
It is no doubt remarkable that Herrera has developed such a strong and identifiable oeuvre of work, despite never using the same material twice. The elegant and whimsical forms of her sculptures evidence her thoughtful inclusion and manipulation of these disparate materials. Whether the form stems from a stripped branch as in Uprooted or from a reclaimed metal lamp, as in Forgotten Soul, each sculpture majestically evokes the abstracted form of both a human figure and a tree. This most literal homage to nature is a constant reminder of the environmental activism that is at the heart of Herrera’s art and practice. Herrera, like her Arte Povera predecessors challenges the autonomy of the art object and the artist, but makes clear she is doing so in reparation to our depleted and brutalized environment.
 Interview with the artist, Gina Herrera, 2016.
 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ed. Arte Povera (London: Phaidon Press, 1999), 17-18.
 Artist’s statement, as found on Gina Herrera’s website.
 Interview with the artist.
 Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 154.
 Email from the artist, Gina Herrera, 2016.
 Interview with the artist.
 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Expanded Edition (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999), 27.