Recipes for Representation: Lucia Hierro at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

Five grocery bags, sculpturally rendered at a height of five feet, surround visitors in the first gallery of Lucia Hierro’s exhibition “Marginal Costs” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. One of these wall-hung sacks, Sweet Beans (Habichuela con Dulce), 2017, is made of magenta-colored polyester organdy and filled with nylon forms printed with images to resemble Goya, Ligo, and Rica brand products—beans, evaporated milk, and other ingredients for the titular dessert. Mandao 2 (2019), on the adjacent wall, is a smaller translucent bag containing foam, felt, and suede versions of such items as ginger and a Maggi flavor packet. Part of Hierro’s ongoing “Bodegon” series, these works contend with diasporic identity and gentrification within the community of Washington Heights.

Hierro is a first-generation Dominican American artist who was raised in San Francisco de Macorís, her parents’ hometown in Dominican Republic, and Washington Heights, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, where she was born. Flanked by the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, Washington Heights is a vibrant barrio of mainly Afro-Caribbean and Latin American immigrant New Yorkers. When Hierro began to study art history at SUNY Purchase, she was dismayed by the absence of such communities and their cultures in the images she saw.

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A gallery view depicts two sculptures hanging on the wall, both of which look like enlarged grocery sacks filled with branded products.

View of “Marginal Costs,” 2021–22, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, showing Sweet Beans (Habichuela Con Dulce), 2017, and Mandao 2, 2019.

Later, while studying painting at the Yale School of Art, Hierro took advantage of a serendipitous error: she received a delivery of several bolts of felt instead of the colored paper she had ordered. It offered Hierro a new approach, merging photographic collage with the sewing and handiwork she had learned from her mother. Eventually the artist discovered she could make digital prints directly on the felt, an unexpected shift that led her to introduce imagery of the foods and other cultural signifiers of her upbringing alongside artifacts of mainstream intellectual culture. In an ongoing series called “New Yorker” (2012–), for example, Hierro collages felt cutouts to render her friends’ Instagram selfies on pages of the New Yorker.

Throughout the exhibition, the architecture and culture of Washington Heights remains central to Hierro’s work. In her latest series, “Gates” (2021–), tucked between the bars of freestanding sections of wrought iron fencing seven feet tall are rolled-up pieces of suede, printed with “no solicitation” signs or coupon circulars. Nearby is Marginal Costs (2021), a mural commissioned for the Aldrich, comprising vinyl decals picturing storefront signage, “for lease” posters, a Dominican food cart, and candy vending machines. Leaning against the gallery walls are Casita and Essencialmente Essencial (both 2021), mattresses covered with printed bedsheets that evoke the beds that often lie indiscriminately along the sidewalks in Hierro’s neighborhood. This allusion may not be legible to viewers unfamiliar with the city, but Hierro suggests that this particular sign of urban life is worth enshrining within the museum, just as Diamond Stingily does in her brilliant installation Entryways (2019), where baseball bats lean against freestanding doors in a symbol of protection for Black people at large—be the threat  psychological, physical, or otherwise.

Hierro’s exploration of class dynamics grows more explicit in the printed bedsheets, which further reference food commerce, depicting a grocery cart and a bike with Doordash and Uber Eats delivery satchels. But Hierro has noticeably edited out the human figures using these carriers. Their absence illuminates the “costs” in the exhibition’s title and the series’ framework of the bodega: the instant delivery services represented in Essencialmente Essencial, which tend to rely on lower-income workers to serve higher-income customers, threaten to undermine and potentially replace the small urban bodega that sells the ingredients for Habichuela con Dulce. In this sense, Marginal Costs gestures to class inequities.

These urban vignettes recall Lauren Halsey’s massive installations based on her neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Both artists employ contemporary Pop aesthetics while preserving a local visual vocabulary of quotidian objects, advertisements, storefronts, and signage—especially those elements of urban identity commonly phased out in gentrification. Hierro’s work often leans toward more monumental proportions for smaller goods, amplifying distinct objects to iconic status.

The tone is celebratory, the show an exuberant archive, but the works also permit a sense of loss. Midway through the exhibition, Hierro combined other decals to portray a beautiful makeshift altar incorporating an inverted black crate, roses, and a small statue of a Catholic saint, surrounded by white memorial candles, a bottle of Hennessy, and more roses. The altar is a composite memory honoring those who have passed on. Its placement at the show’s midpoint suggests a solemn resting place, and a promise to carry on.


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