It can even be claimed that comics have served as foundation for his visual language throughout his career. To begin with, the contribution of comics to Erró’s work consisted merely in single characters and visual bits and pieces that he cut together with other sorts of material; later on the characteristics of comics, especially American action comics – that exaggerated universe of excitement, energy and speed – became his main fascination. In his work, Erró recreates the claustrophobic space of the comic where numerous diverse characters cruise through air, where everything is gathered in a bustling heap and the images stay on the brink of exploding from frightening action. There is narrative to be found in his pictures, too. The stories told may not be the same as those in the comics they are based on, but the viewer is invited to make up new stories, according to his or her interests and knowledge.
Erró took up his current method in the early 1960’s: painting based on collage. That technique is essential to Erró’s art: he gathers all sorts of images that catch his interest, images that have appeared in print all around the world, and mixes them together. The material for his collages is scraps from newspapers, magazines, posters, brochures, postcards, advertisements and last, but not least, comics, that he then transforms by painting them on canvas. The collages enable Erró to propose incredible combinations that can be funny, ironic, threatening, even uncomfortable.
Erró first came to New York in December 1963. Whether or not that was the first time he met with American comics – or whether he already knew them in childhood – it was in New York that he discovered the possible use of the flashing drawings of comics for artistic purposes, according to art philosopher Arthur C. Danto. Erró would get to know the city’s art scene well, as he stayed there time and again from 1963 to 1970. There he got to know, among others, pop-artists Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, all of whom had employed the world of comics as material for their work. They were not interested in comics as a phenomenon, but fascinated by the graphics, the energy and excitement – consciously making use of the well-known imagery and symbolism of narrative comics to bridge the gap between high and low culture.
American culture took up more and more space in Erró’s art after 1970, and comics moved ever more to its foreground. In 1972, Erró made Comic Scapes, the first large painting to be based entirely on comics. In an interview printed in the catalogue of the comics exhibition Nían, in Reykjavík Art Museum last March and April, Erró says: “I find European comics old fashioned and romantic, too textual. American comics hold a stronger sense of future, more fun and entertainment.”
Art scholars tend to label Erró’s art as political, and indeed, his comics-dominated work from the 1980’s more often than not involves strong political references. Erró, however, claims never to have been part of any particular political movement. He also says he is uninterested in the comics’ storylines, says he doesn’t read them, that he has no time for that. His virtuosity is to mix diverse styles within the frame, throw different characters from different authors together into one image. His obviously extensive knowledge of comic characters serves to underline the content of the images, resulting in the nightmarish, a world on the brink of hell.
Through his career, Erró has used various different narrative methods. He may combine different images, juxtaposing two different worlds in one image, one space, or divide the frame into two or three zones where the images can be read either separately or as one. His “scapes” are heaps of imagery, landscapes of characters and events. Around 1990 he made his first use of what is called “ron nets”, experimenting with new ways of telling stories, closer to the traditional narrative methods of comics. The images he had collected were ordered by a computer, into this net or program, normally used to design three-dimensional objects. Erró then based his painting on the printout.
Erró claims not to have any favourites among comics authors. He does not initiate conversations about authors or characters, even confuses them and they do not seem to make up independent entities in his mind. His only works that actually refer to the original titles of the raw material are pieces based on stories by Zap Comix authors S. Clay Wilson and Robert Crumb. The content of these stories, part of a certain subculture in the 60’s and into the 70’s, were considered intimidating, rude, obscene, pornographic and politically perverse. Erró has stated that Crumb’s influence on contemporary pop culture is no less than the Beatles’ influence earlier on.
Even if Erró would not acknowledge any author as a favourite source for his work, it is obvious that some characters inspire him more than others, for example Silfer Surfer, Red Sonja and Wonder Woman, repeatedly showing up in his work – notably all of them appear in the big wall deco in Kringlan, Reykjavík’s shopping mall.
Critics have pointed out that, on the one hand, links can be made between Erró’s use of comics and his studies in Ravenna, Italy, where he learned to make mosaics, based on the Bysanic tradition of black outlines and two dimensional forms; on the other hand that the illuminations of ancient Icelandic manuscripts, familiar to Erró since childhood, may have been influential. These two roots have affected his imagery, along with modern comics in all their stylistic diversity.
Whatever can be said about that, it is clear that Erró’s comics-based paintings have changed and developed through his career, in line with the changes that American comics have undergone in the same period. The methods of comics have changed with the emergence of computers, and video games and technology have had their say on their structure and looks. These influences can be clearly discerned in Erró’s recent work.
Erró’s attitude towards comics as raw material is that they are the same as any other mass-produced stuff in the world’s image bank, to be used at will. The images usually undergo a great change as they are transferred onto canvas – the colour combinations and pictorial structure are fitted to the needs of the painting, even if the printed origin stays central as a point of reference
Finally: When asked why he makes such extensive use of comics, Erró says that the international familiarity of the medium’s language is important to him, allowing the artistically unbaptized to enjoy his thus universally accessible work.
Translated by Haukur Már Helgason
Þorbjörg B. Gunnarsdóttir is the Director of the Erró Collection at the Reykjavík Art Museum.