Mario Hugo

If you find a used book
with its flyleaves removed, there’s a good chance Mario Hugo is
responsible. The 25-year-old artist, designer, and illustrator often
spends his weekends rummaging the racks at New York City’s Strand
bookstore. He buys old books, extracting the thick, blank pages and,
often, returns the harvested books to the store. Sacrilegious? Perhaps,
but the poetic, emotive artwork this act enables should more than repay
Hugo’s debts to literature and society.

“It’s not
like a cheap nostalgia,” Hugo explains of his chosen medium.
“There’s a poignant energy to these pages—the way they
smell, their grain, and the way they feel. And you always discover
things—sometimes funny, sometimes oddly erotic notes that people
have left.” Hugo tapes the pages together to form a canvas on
which he draws portraits, geometric shapes, letterforms, and other
minimalist motifs using a combination of china ink, graphite, and
gouache or acrylic. His work is predominantly black-and-white with spare
use of color (he confesses to being partly color-blind). The overall
effect is at once new and old: technically precise, yet aged and
imperfect. He says, “I’m inspired by a lot of cultural
references, but none of them are recent.”

Born to Argentine
parents, Mario Hugo Gonzalez (the art world already had one Mario
Gonzalez, hence the shortening), he is the eldest of four
first-generation children. Always a natural with pen and paper, he
studied fine art and sociology at Boston College, but a junior-year trip
to Sydney led him by chance to the Semi-Permanent design conference. He
returned wanting “to learn more about speaking to people and
communications,” so he transferred to Brooklyn’s Pratt
Institute to study art direction. After graduating in 2005, Hugo took a
job at interdisciplinary studio Syrup NYC, working on websites for the
MTV Video Music Awards and L’Oréal. Describing that work as
“too ephemeral and strange for me,” he says he prefers to
create “things for people to treasure, to keep and look at in 15

Hugo left Syrup after one year to freelance and make
art. This work is largely inspired by his family, especially his
youngest brother Alejandro. Despite a 17-year age gap, the pair is
co-creating a book of portraits and writing called Reverie and
, which will be part autobiography, part invention.
Hugo cites designer Bruno Munari’s children’s book Nella
Notte Buia
as an influence; he aspires to make children’s
books professionally, to tell stories with an “undercurrent of
fantasy and abstraction.”

Although he’s not ready to
forgo client work altogether—his illustrations have graced The
New York Times Magazine
and the cover of Flaunt—Hugo
dedicated most of 2007 to his first solo exhibition. “I’ve
Got Something I’d Like to Show You,” held at the Vallery
space in Barcelona in fall of 2007, featured such pieces as And It
Was Left Void
, a fluid, typographic painting on yellowed book pages,
and large-scale, hand-embroidered compositions like Twilight, a
bold typographic treatment stitched into a hemp-silk blend.

really like tangible things. I find that people who enjoy my work
actually like it for those physical qualities,” Hugo says of the
warm reception he has received. “Maybe people are a little tired
of the overly computerized design world.”