Located just below the Artic Circle, Iceland is the Land of Fire and Ice: a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic defined by its dramatic landscape with one-hundred thirty volcanic mountains, geysers, hot springs and lava fields. Iceland mostly stays quietly out of the news – but in 2010 – Iceland was major global news when the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano erupted causing the largest air-traffic shutdown since World War II.

Iceland only has a population of 360,390 and is the most sparsely populated country in Europe but what innovative artists it produces! Consider some of its most famous natives – Bjork, the innovative and haunting contemporary singer-songwriter and Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic-Danish contemporary artist famously known for his mesmerizing art installations such as his Weather Project, the Unilever Series commission for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Museum, London.  But before either of these cutting-edge artists were known, there was Erro.

At eighty-eight, Erró, is perhaps the oldest of the well-known contemporary artists. I only connected his name to his figurative artwork when I saw his Mao‘s World Tour at the Reykjavik Art Museum.  His association with American Pop Art began in 1963 when Erró travelled for the first time to New York and was introduced to Pop Art, which was coming into vogue at the time. For the next few years he worked in different media, such as performance art and experimental cinema, in addition to painting. Erró quickly became one of the pioneers of European narrative figuration with Pop Art influence.

Mao in New Jersey, 1979, oil on canvas

Erró was one of the first Western artists to adopt the legend and images of Mao Zedong. He began making polically-charged collages from magazines he collected and he juxtaposed Western images of consumerism with Chinese propaganda imagery. His gift was in carefully matching the scale of his Chinese workers or of Mao with backdrops of the 1960’s New York skyline, for example.  You are tricked into thinking Mao and his workers really marched through the streets of New Jersey. He began integrating pictures of the Chinese communist leader and his troops into some works starting in 1967–68.

To my mind, he is most like the British Pop Artist Richard Hamilton who similarly used magazine collage to create images with a real optical and emotional punch. Both artists carefully chose and adjusted images to create seemingly plausible compostitions.  Their collage works are dense, unlike their American counterparts like Lichtensten, Rosenquist or Warhol whose works were not as tightly-packed with imagery. In American Pop, objects depicted are big, the space around them is big. Lichtensten didn’t have to say it, he painted it: BAM! This is one of the differences between American and European Pop Art – fussy vs bold.

I focus on Erro’s collage works since to me they were the most authentic, because I felt the mid-size paintings in the exhibit that were an exact replicas of each collage had a stiffness I found a bit off-putting. It was only in reading the gallery text that I learned that Erro began this series in 1972, with his Four Cities series of paintings. These oil paintings were executed between 1974 and 1980 by professional Thai movie poster painters. Movie poster artists – essentially highly-adept commercial artists – were hired to make big movie posters usually hung above a move theater, not only in Thailand but in most major cities on most continents. No wonder Erro hired them, they were highly-skilled, worked fast (they had to) and had a product (movie) to sell.  American artists James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol both started out in commercial art. The need to work fast, make slick, easy to decipher images were essential for commercial art and became hallmarks of Pop Art.

Erro, Texas, detail, 1976, collage

Erro’s collages show his careful compositional skills which do not translate well when enlarged and carefully copied in oil paint on canvas, no matter who did the actually execution.  The life seems snuffed out of them.  In this exhibition, the collages and their paired oil paintings “tell the story of Chairman Mao as world conqueror, though in fact Mao only made two trips out of China, both times to attend the Communist Party Convention in Moscow. In Erró’s version, The Long March, undertaken by Mao and his communist troops in 1934–35 within China (368 days, 10,000 km), extends over the entire planet, and in particular in Europe and the United States, symbols of capitalism and imperialism,” in the words of the exhibition curator Danielle Kvaran.

“Each Chinese painting, like most other paintings by Erró from 1964 onwards, is based on a preliminary collage. Mixing Chinese propaganda images with tourist pictures culled from postcards and travel brochures, Erró sends Mao and his followers on a triumphal procession through major cities and emblematic sites of the West. The staging and the presence of Mao in these various locations is an ironic reference to the wave of Maoism that seized groups of Western artists, intellectuals and politicians following the student riots in Paris in May 1968. The series subtly objectifies both the utopian dream of the future and the fear of the Chinese Cultural Revolution spreading around the world at that time. “

The Chinese Paintings made Erró famous internationally. Since 1975, they have been exhibited in many cities, starting with Lucerne, Munich, Aachen, Rotterdam, Paris, New York, and Venice, with a spoof of Mao’s Little Red Book as a catalogue. The exhibition in Hafnarhús includes collages, paintings, lithographs, digital prints and posters from Reykjavík Art Museum’s own collection, as well as works on loan from the National Gallery of Iceland and private collectors. Erro had another star turn in 2016 when he was included in International Pop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with long-time friend James Rosenquist. (It’s a great interview in the March, 2016 NYTimes between Erro and Rosenquist.)

The paintings Erro makes that most of the world knows have evolved to be still image-dense but more exuberant than the early Mao series.  In his paintings, there are our omnipresent superheroes jostling with all manner of folks, buildings, food, you name it.  He’s Heronimous Bosch for the late 20th and eary 21 centuries. His paintings and collages have been at the  Perrotin Gallery in New York City from January 14-February 15, 2020. At eighty-eight, Erro is still highly relevant and highly productive. Warm wool hats off to Erro!

–Cynthia Kukla

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