Erick Medel, “Virgen (Gorra)” (2019), 9 x 10 inches, denim, polyester thread, polyurethane foam, hardware (all images courtesy Martha’s Contemporary)

AUSTIN, TX — For Erick Medel, returning to Los Angeles after finishing graduate school on the East Coast in 2018 also meant coming back to his culture. Born in Mexico but raised in LA, the artist identified strongly with the people of Boyle Heights, his working class, Mexican American neighborhood east of downtown. Though he’d previously focused on photography, Medel found himself drawn to his mother’s sewing machine, and soon began translating phone snaps he’d taken around his community into stitched scenes on fabric.

Erick Medel: Hustling de Sol a Sol at Martha’s Contemporary presents 12 of Medel’s recent textile works. With its informal glimpses of everyday life, Medel’s new work is still grounded in observing the world around him, and retains a sense of the photographic. However, his vibrant colors, tactile textures, and labored surfaces give the pieces a tender liveliness, and convey the artist’s strong sense of identification with and care for his environment.

Erick Medel, “Tacos on Wall Street” (2021), 11 x 14 inches, denim and polyester thread

Sewing projects are often meticulously planned, but Medel works freely and intuitively, forming his images in a graceful web of overlapping and rippling stitches. Up close, the textiles take on the sketchy quality of a delicate drawing, and the bright palette of Medel’s threads contrasts with his navy denim and black vinyl fabrics. Like the sewing machine itself, the artist’s materials are utilitarian and functional. Tensions between his thin, colorful threads and hardy, dark substrates lend a richness to the works’ surfaces that’s hard to look away from.

Medel’s labor-intensive pieces pay tribute to the labor being done around him. He portrays the working life of his community, where people board buses, wait at crosswalks, and make and eat food on the streets. These daily moments of moving, buying, and selling reflect a larger system of immigrant life and labor that the artist described as largely invisible. On a recent tour of the exhibition, Medel told Hyperallergic that he sees himself and his own family’s story in the people he represents. And because of his work, others will see them, too.

Installation view, Erick Medel: Hustling de Sol a Sol
Erick Medel, “Señor Vendiendo Dulces (candy hustle)” (2021), 11 x 14 inches, polyester thread on denim
Erick Medel, “For the Fallen” (2021), 11 x 14 inches, polyester thread on denim

Erick Medel: Hustling de Sol a Sol continues at Martha’s Contemporary (4115 Guadalupe Street, Austin, Texas) through January 10, 2022.

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Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.