In “Marginal Costs,” Artist Lucia Hierro Mines the Space Between Objects and Personal Histories

·7 min read

On a recent Friday morning, the artist Lucia Hierro was delayed joining our Zoom call. “Just dealing with a quick issue with install at the museum,” she explained via email. Not long after, she showed me what she meant: A work in “Marginal Costs”—her new exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut—had, apparently overnight, slipped from the wall and onto the floor. “I’m glad that it was up yesterday while we gave a tour to the board members,” she said. “Today, we walked in and we were like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah. We celebrated too soon.’”

Its logistical complications notwithstanding—ultimately, Hierro had to extricate herself from the hanging mishap, joking, “They don’t pay me for that”—“Marginal Costs” marks her first solo museum show, and perhaps the most considered and comprehensive expression of her creative vision to date. (An accompanying publication will arrive from the museum this fall.) Staked on shapes and iconographies borrowed from Pop Art, minimalism, and the Dutch still-life tradition, “Marginal Costs” encompasses recent and new sculptures from Hierro’s Mercado series; the debut of the Gates, a commission from the Aldrich; and several sprawling wall murals. Taken together, her graphic, oversized pieces mine the boundary between objects and personal histories, economies and identities—especially as they pertain to marginalized communities caught in the crosshairs of gentrification.

Hierro was born in New York to Dominican parents, spending her youth in the Washington Heights/Inwood area of Upper Manhattan. Hers was a musical household—her father kept a recording studio next to their apartment—but she began drawing, she thinks, because of her brother, who attended LaGuardia High School. Even then, Hierro’s art-making functioned as a way to connect; a means of making herself understood. While, at home, her mother would ask what she wanted to wear and sew whatever Hierro sketched; at school, her creativity helped to mitigate a stressful language barrier. “I was in ESL [English as a Second Language] as a kid, and my experience there was really negative. I was so scared all the time; I felt like I was doing something wrong [by] not speaking English,” she says. “But we would get reintegrated into the classroom for art classes, and I always really loved that because it was a time for me to also kind of flex that I really was good at this.”

As a high-school senior, Hierro decided to pursue art formally, her confidence and know-how buttressed by free weekend art classes at the Cooper Union. “It’s kind of incredible, if you look at the history of art, how many young people—usually from low-income households and with very few art programs in their high schools—ended up [there],” she says. “The Saturday Program really does develop an amazing thing in introducing you to the rest of the Cooper Union college and [showing you that] this is a possibility, and this is where you could be.”

Lucia Hierro, Casita, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and LatchKey Gallery, New York.
Lucia Hierro, Casita, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and LatchKey Gallery, New York.
Photo: Lucia Hierro

She went on to study at SUNY Purchase College and then Yale, developing a foundation in the art-history vernaculars that would later inform her professional practice. She was taken with Pop Art, abstraction, minimalism, and the fastidious world-building of Dutch still-lifes. “I was really into those paintings because of the insistence that culture had on documenting its way of life, and also kind of a philosophy of life, which I thought was really interesting,” she says. (She has also drawn a line between those paintings and herself in darker terms, writing, “I often joked that the closest thing to Caribbean art history was found in Dutch still-life paintings, featuring the goods acquired from their conquests.”)

So too was she attracted to the narrative power of collage: “It was self-referential—you could layer meaning,” she says. To manipulate fabrics like nylon, felt, and cotton bedsheets was to make her work’s frequent allusions to the domestic even more concise. “If I’m going to talk about home, or a concept of home in a neighborhood kind of setting, what’s more personal than a material that one wears, or sleeps in, or sits on?” she muses. “There’s an intimacy with that.”

After Yale, Hierro found a studio in the South Bronx, where she now exists in a creative enclave that includes the likes of Jordan Casteel and Derek Fordjour. She began to build her Mercado series there, fashioning gigantic cotton totes and transparent shoppings bags filled with digitally printed facsimiles of grocery and drugstore items, newspapers, magazines, and flowers. (The series’ medium has been described as soft-assemblage, but don’t imagine objects with Claes Oldenburg–like volume; Hierro’s objects are principally silhouettes, hand-sewn by Hierro and her mother.)

Lucia Hierro, Mandao 2. Polyorganza, digital print on suede, felt & foam 52 x 38 x 6 in.
Lucia Hierro, Mandao 2. Polyorganza, digital print on suede, felt & foam 52 x 38 x 6 in.
Private Collection, New York

Amy Smith-Stewart, senior curator at the Aldrich, likens the bags and their contents to portraits: “They’re very much influenced by memories of people and places and associations that she has that are very personal.” (Six works from the series appear in “Marginal Costs.”) While in one iteration, Hierro has assembled the ingredients for sweet beans—or habichuelas con dulce—a traditional Dominican dessert, another is filled with Clorox wipes, vitamin C, flour, and butter; Hierro calls it the “COVID bag.” When I ask why imagery from The New Yorker so often appears in these carryalls—what that title means to her, particularly when it appears in combination with a carton of eggs, a new sponge, and fresh ginger—Hierro reflects on the duality of her own identity; her sense of existing both within the magazine’s sociopolitical milieu (as a graduate of Yale) and outside of it (as a Bronx-based child of Dominican immigrants). Indeed, central to the mission of the series at large is an interrogation of both the connections and the gaps between both cultures. As Hierro told i-D, “Mercado came at a time when I was thinking about my place as an artist within the capitalist framework…not being considered ‘American’ enough or ‘Dominican’ enough but refusing to be invisible, my own experience of the exchange of culture and goods between the two places.”

Elsewhere in the show, Hierro’s wrought-iron Gates—a collaboration with Luigi Iron Works in East Orange, New Jersey—were inspired by the multifamily homes she would pass when she lived in the North Bronx. As she traveled between the Bronx Museum, where she was doing a residency, and her studio, she’d see front gates jammed with local supermarket circulars on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (In Gates, Hierro replicates the circulars on a larger-than-life scale.) The scene was similar but subtly different in the South Bronx, where the circulars would often sit out for days, growing yellow and soggy in the rain. “What you’re starting to notice,” Hierro says, “is an influx of younger couples with money, and they come in and they have no use for them.” Just like that, the circulars were becoming “relics.” (In a mural nearby, where she’s transposed photographic prints of fruit stands, shopping carts, and other sights from around her neighborhood onto transparent vinyl sheets and mounted them on the walls, Hierro identifies another modern relic: The gum-ball machine at a bodega. “Who has that much change anymore?” she wonders aloud.)

Gates speaks to another important theme in “Marginal Costs” too—namely, the concept of invisible labor. Unless you’re up quite early, the people distributing those circulars—many of whom come from immigrant communities—go largely unseen, carrying their work out in obscurity. In homage to those workers and others like them, allusions to the body abound in Hierro’s show. Eschewing outright figuration, she has created forms that slouch and lean and take up space, confronting and implicating the viewer. “Even though you don’t see a specific face,” Smith-Stewart says, “that human condition is everywhere.”

Between the Aldrich show, El Museo del Barrio’s 2020-21 triennial “Estamos Bien,” in which works from her Racks series—with its wonderful nod to Donald Judd’s Stacks—appear, and her new association with Charlie James Gallery, 2021 has been a banner year for Hierro. “It hit me the other day when I packed my show,” she says. “I had a moment when the studio was completely blank, and I sat there and I cried and I felt all of the things, because I hadn’t had a moment to take in all of it.” She has a lot of people to thank; some of which she already has in an effusive Instagram post. But, she adds, “There’s also a moment where I’m like, ‘Okay, I fucking earned this.’”

“Lucia Hierro: Marginal Costs” is on view at the Aldrich from June 7 though January 2, 2022. See here for visiting information.

Originally Appeared on Vogue