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Jonathan Herrera Soto's exhibition called "In Between/Underneath" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Compassion over politics: Jonathan Herrera Soto’s “In Between / Underneath (Entremedio / Por Debajo)”

Do not dismiss Jonathan Herrera Soto’s exhibition “In Between / Underneath (Entremedio / Por Debajo)” as yet another political commentary. The exhibition, which is on view in Mia’s U.S. Bank Gallery through November 3, consists of three print series: Love Poems/Poemas de Amor, Untitled/Sin titulo, and In Between / Underneath (Entremedio / Por Debajo). In each of these works, Herrera Soto highlights people who were murdered or made to disappear through state-sponsored violence in Mexico—particularly journalists who reported or advocated against government corruption.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a record number of journalists are murdered or made to disappear in Mexico every year—it’s one of the most dangerous countries for freedom of the press.[i] Many of the disappearances are linked to narco-cartels and their relationship with corrupt government officials. Although violence is implied in his subject matter, Herrera Soto never depicts violence in the artwork. Instead, the works on display embody radical compassion through the acts of remembrance and contemplation. They demand that we explore our relationship with complicated and often distant systems of state-sponsored violence.

To dismiss the exhibition as political is to miss the point entirely. The word “political,” in this context, is defined by systemic white supremacy. To be political is by its very definition the ability to opt into or out of an ideology. In praxis, the phrase is used to pronounce something as opposed to the dominant ideology—one that often privileges wealthy white men. If you live in a politicized and marginalized body, then everything you do is a political act—including making art—because to exist is to defy the hegemony, or systems of dominant ideologies.

It is necessary to look beyond the trope of political art because, as Herrera Soto pointed out in a recent interview, “Speaking in the hypothetical, even if work could be produced in a vacuum, it is never consumed in one.”

In this case, the work is on view at Mia, a large, encyclopedic museum. Museums have long played a role in legitimizing dominant narratives in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the museum field grapples with its role in legitimizing capitalism, imperialism, and colonization in the 21st century, curators are reshaping how institutions can hold space for contemplation and difficult conversations. By viewing the work in an institution, like Mia, how does that impact our understanding of the work? Are we creating space for dialog? Does the gallery transform into a temporary memorial to those who are lost because of violence?

“In Between / Underneath (Entremedio / Por Debajo)” addresses deep, complex issues of power dynamics, violence, complacency, and compassion without providing clear answers.

“Our cultural identities and lived experiences are littered with trauma and love. … I believe everything you have ever experienced bleeds into the work you make and becomes legible to the viewer to some degree,” explained Herrera Soto.

Reanimating Violence and Mythology through Printmaking

In a day and age where artists frequently cross medium-specific boundaries, Herrera Soto is committed to printmaking. The printmaking process requires the translation of information from the printing plate to paper. This translation often occurs through a series of violent acts: the slicing of stencils, burning acid onto a metal plate or stone surface, the immense pressure of a press, and the crushing of ink onto paper. Printmaking is also considered a democratic medium because it allows for the quick reproduction and dissemination of information.

An untitled print by Jonathan Herrera Soto. Spanish words on the print translate as "Or maybe something even more precious."

One of Herrera Soto’s untitled prints in the exhibition. The words, in English, read, “Or maybe something even more precious.”

“I reanimate violence and mythology through the process,” Herrera Soto said. “By boiling down printmaking to its bare components, I find myself continuously excited about the medium and its possibilities outside of its traditional placement in art-making and history.”

For his exhibition at Mia, the artist created a large-scale print-installation (72 x 24 feet) that consists of 200 faces of murdered Mexican journalists stamped onto the floor of U.S. Bank Gallery’s long room. More than 600 hours of work went into the creation of this piece. Herrera Soto spent more than a year tracing and cutting the stencils, and hours in the gallery stamping mud onto the floor. The monumental work depicts the faces of Mexican journalists who were forced to disappear or were murdered by cartels or government forces. Over the four-month run of the exhibition, as visitors walk across the images, the faces will eventually erode. This disappearance, as it were, asks viewers to contemplate questions for which there are no easy answers.

Herrera Soto is interested in the transformation of information between people, much like the translation that occurs between plate and paper in the printmaking process. He explains, “When an incident of trauma inflicts a community, there are various truths that embed themselves to fill the void the body leaves behind. The local authorities have their narrative, the mother has hers, and neighbors who witnessed the incident have theirs. I am interested in the movement of these narratives from one person to the other.”

When confronted with various interpretations of events, as viewers, we have to trust in the narrator or artist. We have to believe that the artist did the archival research to find the names and faces of the 200 journalists laid bare before us. As we walk across the floor, eroding the fragments of portraits into dust, we trust the artist’s intentions.

Herrera Soto’s interest in mythology and reanimation of violence is highlighted in his series Untitled/Sin titulo, 2019, on the far south wall of the U.S. Bank Gallery—directly above In Between / Underneath. The series consists of collographs, or ink-rubbings of material secured to a plate and either ran through a press or hand pressed onto paper (four are on view in this exhibition). The works explore the connection between clothing and the body. Often, the victims of state-sanctioned crimes—or their bodies—disappear. They leave behind stories, not in words but remnants. Trails of their clothing are found in the deserts between borders, stuck on barbed-wire fences, or washed up on beaches. Items that likely had personal significance for those who wore it are now forensic evidence.

To create the Untitled series, Herrera Soto used his clothes that he secured to a printing plate. He used the harsh and violent forces of a printing press to translate the information provided from the plate via ink onto the paper. Herrera Soto doubles down on his role of narrator and artist by including fragmented poetry written in script across the prints. This violence may evoke the experiences of the people who wore these clothes in politicized conditions. The poetry serves as a testimonial to those the victims have left behind.

Con vida          [Alive]

 

O Tal                [Or Perhaps]

Vez Algo Aun [Something Even]

Más Precioso  [More Precious]

 

Nada Peor:       [Nothing Worse:]

 

Soñé                [I dreamt]

que me            [that you]

Diste tu           [Gave me your]

Mano               [Hand]

Cubierta          [Covered]

en Miel y         [in Honey and]

Petróleo           [Gasoline]

The threshold of the doorway in U.S. Bank Gallery provides the opportunity to juxtapose the acts of remembrance and the inherent violence of the Untitled series and In Between / Underneath with the compassion and contemplation of the series of Love Poems/Poemas de Amor, 2019, in the front room.

Jonathan Herrera Soto's "Love Poems" series describes his notions of love in relationship with loss and grief.

The “Love Poems” series in Herrera Soto’s exhibition. He used scrap paper to work through his notions of love in relationship to loss and grief.

Unlike other works in the exhibition that represent violence, the Love Poems series is the result of daily exercises, in which the artist analyzes his notions of love in relationship to loss and grief. Various marks are made on paper that the artist has reclaimed from a recycling bin at numerous residencies and studios. The artist uses these compositions to work through his relationships with family members, romantic partners, beloved friends, and the subjects of his practice. Love Poems symbolizes his feeling of being intertwined with and bound to his subject matter, unable to discern where the work starts and he begins.

The contemplation of his daily exercise is exaggerated by the placement of two benches built from reclaimed wood that was found at construction sites and recall church pews. Visitors are encouraged to sit, view the works, and contemplate the totality of their experiences. In doing so, he consciously provides space for us not to be overwhelmed, but to ebb and flow in the emotions and complexities that the show addresses.

Taken as a whole, the exhibition complicates our relationships to the trauma that is centered in the exhibition. Herrera Soto balances the weight of these traumas by embedding radical compassion within the exhibition.

Radical Compassion, or Co-Suffering

While violence and pain are alluded to throughout the exhibition, there are no direct depictions of tortured bodies or the violent acts inflicted upon the journalists. Instead, Herrera Soto presents us with three print series situated within a specific environment—one defined by its monumentality. Throughout his practice, Herrera Soto has been “interested in creating environments, and the monumentality of the works at times swallow the viewer like waves in the ocean or dunes in the dessert.” He continued, “If the work feels greater than the viewer, the ideas imbedded in the work also do.”

The essayist and professor Elaine Scarry noted, “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”[ii] If pain is “unsharable” or inaccessible, then what drives us towards empathizing with the faces below our feet and the traces of lives lived on the walls of the gallery?

Susan Sontag dissects the empathic power of photojournalism as “shock and awe”—a term borrowed from warfare tactics based on overwhelming and spectacular displays of force to undermine the opponents’ ability to fight. To capture the attention and empathy of the viewer, photographers must create evermore, shocking, violent, and dramatic content. Images are conscripted into what Sontag calls “the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.”[iii]

For Herrera Soto, “It is the ‘Awe’ after the Shock that is more devastating. … I am interested in capturing the movement of trauma in transition—between the shock value of witnessing something horrible and the residue it leaves behind.”

The “residue” is evident in the subtle poetics of Herrera Soto’s prints and echoes in the environment of the exhibition. The low, pendant lighting recalls interrogation cells as much as it resembles sanctuaries. The pew-like benches and the poetic, abstracted works of art, spot-lit at the back of the long room, speak of a secular sacredness. From the lighting to the abstracted and indirect references to bodies no longer present, Herrera Soto has created a specter of violence through the act of remembering the victims of state-sponsored violence.

“The premise of this art experience lies in the necessity for the audience to believe me. To believe the faces of the journalists actually are their faces, and to trust what I am conveying as an artist is true. Trust is the fundamental access point of empathy,” explained Herrera Soto. “Art is also predicated on that system of believing and trust, in order to access empathy toward something we’ll never experience.”

Let’s be specific here. Our response is driven by compassion, a reaction more nuanced than a direct empathic response. The Latin root of the word “compassion” is “co-suffering.”[iv] While related to the broader concept of empathy, compassion relates to our understanding of another person’s distress or pain. As Scarry noted, compassion is necessary because pain cannot be shared; it must be related to through compassion.

If this exhibition is not political in nature, then how should viewers experience it? Let’s see it as an act of radical compassion. Coined by the philosopher Khen Lampert, “radical compassion” is a personal drive to alleviate the suffering of others.[iv] Inherent in this theory is the need to take or pursue action. For Herrera Soto, that action is contemplation. As he explains, “The subtlety of the prints points to the possibility that perhaps these faces have always been under us, ever-present beneath the floorboards under the soles of our feet. I think that In Between / Underneath is not about the journalists in themselves, or only about the violence they endured, but about the complicated relationship we have with them as observers.”

With the rapid movement of information in our lives, art allows us to slow down the dissemination of visual information. The environment that Herrera Soto created for this exhibition invites audiences to take time and absorb information through contemplation.

As Herrera Soto poignantly noted, “To actively and purposefully choose what we care and tend to is a radical act in the 21st century because we dislodge ourselves from being the savior and protagonist of the global narrative.”

Jonathan Herrera Soto is a print-based studio artist originally from Chicago. He graduated with a BFA from the Minneapolis College in Art and Design in 2017. Recent solo exhibitions of Herrera Soto’s work include “In Between/Underneath” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, “Querida Presencia” at the Duluth Art Institute, and “Entre Rios y Montañas” at Annex Gallery in Chicago. He has participated in numerous artist residencies including Yaddo, New York; Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Nebraska; Hambidge Center, Georgia; The Studios at MASS MoCA, Massachusetts; 33 Officia Creativia, Toffia, Italy; Spudnik Press Cooperative, Chicago; and High Point Center for Printmaking, Minneapolis. Herrera Soto is a recent recipient of the Santo Foundation Individual Artist Award, Metro Regional Arts Council Next Step Grant, Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, and is a current 2019–2021 Jerome Hill Artist Grant fellow.

Watch Jonathan Herrera Soto discuss the exhibition in this video from Mia:

The exhibition is part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program. Generous support for MAEP provided by the McKnight Foundation. Additional support provided by RBC Wealth Management.
[i] https://cpj.org/americas/mexico/
[ii] Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, 1987 (London: Oxford University Press) pp 4.
[iii] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2004 (New York: Picador, Macmillan) pp 23.
[iv] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion
[v] Lampert, Khen, Traditions of Compassion: From Religious Duty to Social Activism, 2006 (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan) pp 163, 174-176