A report by Bridget Read for Vogue.
Lucia Hierro is determined to turn your beloved bodega—that irreplaceable New York institution—into a source of artistic inspiration, too. The Bronx-based Hierro, an artist and lifelong New Yorker, creates precious artifacts out of the items we consume every day and that we would usually throw away or wear out, turning bottles, cans, clothing, and magazines into both glorified relics and outsize, ridiculous objects of infatuation. Under her gaze, the ephemera of capitalism is destabilizing rather than familiar—do we really love what we buy, or do we buy things because we need love?
“Mercado,” Hierro’s first solo gallery show in New York, at Elizabeth Dee gallery in Harlem, anticipated fashion’s recent turn to anti-luxury, and included massive transparent shopping bags filled with familiar objects rendered in fabric, curated to tell the personal stories of the absent consumers. In one, Hierro placed drugstore items like Vicks VapoRub and Pond’s cold cream, things she brought to her grandmother in the Dominican Republic from New York.
For her new residency at Red Bull House of Art in Detroit, opening today, Hierro has edited the bags into framed still lifes, reminiscent of museum or curiosity boxes. She also chose specific items from “Mercado” to interrogate even further, as objects of beauty and/or utility, taking inspiration from Donald Judd’s aluminum stacks as she suspended huge bags of potato chips, bodega-style, from a succession of clips on a rack. It’s work that transforms Warhol-style pop-critical pieces for the Internet era, with high irony but also, crucially, optimism.
Have you always been in New York?
I was born and raised in New York. I lived most of my life back and forth between Washington Heights and Inwood. I always joke with my friends that I grew up hood-adjacent. I knew there was stuff going on over there. My parents are from the Dominican Republic, and I lived there also for eighth, ninth, and 10th grades. I come from an art family, and my father is a well-known musician in the Dominican Republic [Henry Hierro]. We were sort of a kooky, Partridge Familykind of thing.
I was always a bookworm, and I was into art. My senior year I was pushed to apply to the Cooper Union Saturday program, which is a portfolio-prep program for students who are not in an arts-intensive high school. I had just come back from the Dominican Republic, and it was the first time I took the train that far downtown by myself, and I was so intimidated by the process. But it was just really wonderful. I enrolled from there into undergrad, which I didn’t go to right away. I worked as a waitress and I worked at Cooper Union, and then the school helped me apply to SUNY Purchase.
What was it like becoming a part of the art scene in New York?
My family has been hustling here since forever. I felt a sense of obligation to stay and make it in New York because my grandmother came to the city via the garment industry. She wanted to be a designer, but she didn’t get the chance. She was incredible; I think she could have rivaled Givenchy if she wanted to. So I feel like I always had a sense of “I have to make it here. I’m not going anywhere else.”
This has been one of those little moments that I feel like artists dream of, where it’s like, “Man, I really love this work.” At first, I didn’t want to work with fabric. I had this crazy thing with not engaging with the labor that brought my family here to the U.S. It was a psychological break, where I just didn’t want to learn to sew or do any of that. But I had ordered paper to make collages, and I got fabric instead. I got a bunch of felt by mistake, and I started working with that. And then my mom was like, “Aha, now you have to learn how to sew.” She actually helped make the bags. I brought her into the studio and it was sort of like a mini art history lesson for my mom, like, “Look at [Claes] Oldenburg and look at these people,” and she got it, you know, it clicked. I realized that I was making these funny, soft, irreverent photo paintings. And then they started to grow into a different idea, which was making a tiny tote bag first, and I put objects into it.
And then when my mom came in, she said, “You should make this really big, like this.” But I was scared to do it. I didn’t have the space for it. And then Larry Ossei-Mensah—the curator of the show; he’s been following me since grad school—would come in and visit and just look around and point at things that he really liked that stood out to him, and we would have these long conversations about them. He agreed with my mom that the bag should be really big. So I made one really big one, and the images are still sort of flat-layered inside, and that’s one of the ones that is in the office at Elizabeth Dee.
How have you transformed “Mercado” for Detroit?
This project is now really [about] delving into constructing these still-life narratives, and the bags all have a personality, and they are all sort of like a person or related to a person in my head. At the [Red Bull] residency, I was able to sit down and think of this past year and think of the people whom I’ve met and the things that are happening in the world, so I made these smaller still lifes here. And then I took a few of the objects, the potato chip bags that were in the bags, and now they’ve been separated into a row on a giant chip rack. It’s my abstracted design of the thing that you find at the store.
Yeah. So the title is Sienna-The Chamaquitos Are Gonna Be Alright.Chamaquitos is a word for young teens that Latinx communities use. I don’t know if all Latinos do, but Dominicans, definitely. That was the title of this specific [piece]. [This still life is] totally a portrait of my studio assistant, who is 18, and she has the most gorgeous face. She does her eyebrows, like all penciled in and beautiful, extreme cat-eye. And what I love is that it’s not the image that you normally see represented as an artist in the art world or in the history of art. If we think of an artist, we have a very specific view in our head: They have interesting glasses or interesting jewelry, or they have big, black, geometric clothes. And she’s not any of those things, and I love that about her. She’ll come to the studio with a Mason jar with green juice in it, and I’m looking at her like: You’re this young Puerto Rican girl who lives a block from me here; I’m not expecting you to bring this giant Mason jar of green juice. And then I added a little of myself into it, which is that I grew up loving comics.
Especially as a young person, the stuff that you can buy yourself has so much meaning, but it can also be dangerous.
It’s really a love-hate relationship with consumerism. On the one hand, I didn’t grow up in a household where brands and things meant anything to us—that was not how I was raised. But I definitely understood it later in high school. In [Sienna-The Chamaquitos Are Gonna Be Alright] there is also an image of a young man talking to Nancy Pelosi on CNN—he asked her about capitalism, if it’s the only model, questioning if it’s working here. And she basically shut him down and said that this is a capitalist country, period. That’s it. And it was such a crazy moment, because I was like, you can’t even have a conversation with this young man to discuss possibilities. And those are the conversations that I have with my assistant. She’s in this moment, and I love that she gets sort of pulled in both of those directions: She really cares about this stuff, but then she’s all about whatever the hyped object is of the moment.
That’s quintessential New York kid, especially uptown kid, breakfast—or lunch, for that matter. It’s cheap. It’s like $1.50 at a bodega, and it definitely is something you can afford. And then mango juice. The background is a screenshot of The Cosby Show. There’s a scene [from Cosby] where Clair and Cliff go and help out at a community center, and the center is run by a Puerto Rican. It was the first time I saw a reality of where I lived on TV. People don’t understand how together communities of color are. I think because we mostly see depictions of “the ghetto” or that there’s a lot of animosity. That’s not the case. So it was really cool to see this well-off black family meeting with a smart, informed Puerto Rican guy and working together.
Why do you think designers are suddenly putting plastic bags on the runway?
I think there has always been a fascination between two societies that are systemically kept apart, and the curiosity that that breeds. As a young teenager, I had friends who lived on Park Avenue, and then I would have to take the long, one-hour train ride back home, and I always loved seeing the different faces that got on the train. So I always think that those moments in fashion are those train rides.