The bodega. For New Yorkers, these are establishments that anchor our blocks, and, in many ways, our lives. They are our most reliable neighbors, cramped and clustered stores filled with everything you need on the go or in a pinch. But all bodegas are not created equal. The items they carry on their shelves vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, based on the respective socioeconomic and cultural makeup of its clientele. Here, a $7 pint of Talenti gelato. There, a $1 bag of BAKEN-ETS pork skin. Brand names change with street blocks.
New York City artist Lucia Hierro knows there is more to be mined from the humble bodega than a pack of gum and a bottle of Poland Spring. The Dominican-American artist’s recent exhibition, Mercado, shown at New York’s Elizabeth Dee Gallery earlier this spring, focused on the bodega as a signifier of class and income, and how privilege can be measured by what we consume, however seemingly insignificant. A hallmark of the series were Hierro’s massive transparent totes, made with polyorganza and stuffed with large-scale renderings of coupons, Goya cans, plastic-wrapped Honey Buns.
Hierro plumbed similar depths in her 2018 residency at the Red Bull House of Art in Detroit. In Aquí y Ahora, a group exhibition with Joiri Minaya and Gina Goico, Hierro installed gargantuan bags of plantain chips and framed collages: in one, a Vogue cover layered over green juice over Glossier lip balm over Nancy Pelosi; in another, a yellow brick of Café Bustelo jockeys for position with a Yale coffee mug, a jar of cinnamon, a bag of Domino sugar. A viewer finds not simply a collection of products in Hierro’s works, but a reflection of themselves.
As Hierro prepares for her next group exhibition, PUNCH—curated by Nina Chanel Abney and on display at Jeffrey Deitch Los Angeles from June 29 through August 17—the artist let us into her studio to talk family techniques, the artist perspective, and nurturing intellect in our current sociopolitical climate.
Former occupation and your most notable memory there:
I was a waitress before going to undergrad. I think my favorite memory was hanging out with the staff after our shift. Oh lord, Arka Lounge after work… the memories!
Your first experience with art as a child:
With visual art, drawing with my brother Chris. He had comics and could draw characters beautifully. I remember copying him. Also, I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) kid and art class was a time when we’d join the rest of the students. I remember when they made us make these collages out of fabric. It blew my mind.
Were your parents interested in art/design? What did they do for work?
My folks were in music. My father’s a composer/producer. My mother learned sewing and design from her mother. She’s an amazing singer and often helped my father with vocals in the studio, but she worked as a nanny. She actually helps out in the studio from time to time. I’ve learned sewing techniques from her.
You once wrote that growing up, museums were cause for anxiety. Why did you feel this way—and what made that change?
They felt exclusive and sterile, and I didn’t really see my neighborhood folks in them. It changed a bit once I started the portfolio prep program at Cooper Union my senior year of high school. We visited artist studios. Most of them were artists of color and their stories mirrored my own. After that, I entered museums and would look at the art from the artist perspective. I also realized some institutions were missing huge chunks of historical narratives. There was a power in knowing that they were not all-knowing.
Can you expand on your idea of art being a platform to “monumentalize the wide range of cultural histories”? Is “art for art’s sake” not enough at our current political juncture?
I think there are certain stories that have yet to be told or seen in our history, and it is absolutely for the benefit of all to find avenues in which to express and document those stories. I think art has always existed for a reason. The notion of art for art’s sake is intellectually lazy, and in this political (and social) climate, we should nurture intellect.
Your last series, Mercado, looked into class and privilege. Did your time as an MFA student at Yale, a historic bastion of class and privilege, provide any illuminating new revelations on this subject?
Nothing I hadn’t already known before going in. If anything, it was more a space that provided me with the proof that allowed me to feel sane about my inquiries.
Last thing you bought from your local bodega:
Chips, limes, Dominican salami.
How did you find your current workspace and where is it?
I owe it to someone who is like the lil’ Bronx mayor. He’s a born-and-raised Bronxite and he showed me some spaces in the South Bronx. We came upon a little tiny studio that was being used as a storage closet. I was in that studio for about three to four years and then moved to my current studio just across the hall. An upgrade.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Buttered toast, boiled egg, fruit, coffee. Sometimes I’m just in the mood for coffee.
What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?
The studio is my 9-to-5, so to speak, so my schedule can be fairly flexible. I currently don’t have gallery representation so my mornings are spent handling administrative things, as well as making sure I have supplies I need to move forward with projects. I usually have a to do list. Some of the things on the list involve going to see some museum shows, taking walks in the neighborhood, jotting down some notes and then taking that back to the studio. Most days, I head into the studio by 10:30 a.m., answer emails and then get to making things, whether that’s studies on my computer or physical work—depends where I am in the process. If I’m in a zone, I’ll be there all day and leave around 9:30 or 10 p.m.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
Music is the family business so not only is it a big part of my life and who I am, it’s a huge part of the studio practice. I listen to all kinds of music. Some days, I’ll be on a salsa kick listening to Fania All-Stars, and other days I’m listening to Anderson .Paak or Mahler. I like those iTunes “For You: New Music” mixes. It really depends on what mood I’m in.
Least favorite question people ask you as an artist:
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a mural mockup for a group show I’ve titled “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar& Gold” at the Museum of African DiasporaSF, a commission for a workspace and fabricating some chip racks for my Racks series.
What medium or tool are you most interested in presently and why?
I’m curious about integrating metal sculptural elements with my soft sculptures. After I made the Racks, it felt like such a great way to bring together two seemingly disparate forms of fabrication, each with their own rich history. I like the dialogue.
What material do you go through the most of?
The special material I digitally print on and thread.
What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?
Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture by Ed Morales. It should just be required reading for everyone. I’m interested in knowing my place in this messy history.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received:
My mentor taught me this: Build legacy… don’t be a flash in the pan… do this by doing it for the work… ask yourself will this be good for the work?