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 years.”
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 Trouble-making, 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.
“I 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.”