I don’t recall how or where I first met Erin Currier, but I’ve been looking at her work since her first show in Taos at the old South Side Bean.
Little Buddha boxes, shrines of a kind, engaged my curiosity. While I was doing Feng Shui for Tom Worrell when he was busy renovating Taos, Erin was painting her Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the adobe walls he had restored.
Her Gallery/Dealer Steve Parks was a friend of mine, and someone who truly knew about art, so when he began representing Erin, I had a vibe she wasn’t going to be hidden in Taos much longer.
Soon she and her long time partner, poet, philosopher and writer Tony Hasset, moved on to Santa Fe and a new Gallery. Perhaps it was closer to an airport, perhaps there were other reasons besides, but I missed seeing the two of them around town, in-between their travels to remote and forgotten places.
I hadn’t seen Erin for years when one day last spring, I sat with Shemai Rodriguez (the Harwood Manager of Marketing, Media and Memberships), outside the museum, under the portal. I had come to pick up a book from her and we went outside to spend a few minutes to catch up. The silhouette of a woman appeared, tall and willowy, her cotton frock swirling around her legs as she walked toward us, a little dog on a leash trotted along beside her.
As she came closer the sunlight ricocheted off of the long auburn hair, I saw it was Erin, and said hello. She came over to where we sat, and I introduced her to Shemai, explaining she was Anita Rodriguez’ daughter.
“Oh how is your mother?” Erin asked. Adding, “ Please say hello, I love her and her work.”
Just a day or two earlier, I’d picked up a bar of Chokola’s excellent chocolate in a wrapper emblazoned with art by Erin. I ate the chocolate but saved the wrapper, propping it up on a small shelf along with a few other images that appealed to me. I thought how cool it would be, if eventually these discarded wrappers (with her images) wound up on a canvas inspired by Taos, and had mentioned that to Debi Vincent, (who first approached Erin after falling in love with a self-portrait against a backdrop of papers she’d collected in Caracas.)
We exchanged pleasantries and she went inside, leaving us sitting in the brilliant sunshine. I found myself thinking that she looked sad. Something had changed in her. I said goodbye to Shemai and left to get on with my day. It did not come as a surprise when I learned that Erin’s travelling show, La Frontera, would be included in Work by Women the show curated by Janet Webb and Judith Kendall at the Harwood Museum of Art.
Her powerful and prescient work takes revolutionary themes and puts a post-modern, pop cultural, cut ‘n paste spin on classical form and composition. Anonymous faces and bodies appear juxtaposed against the backdrops of the disenfranchised, the desolate, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the poor. The “meek” of the Christian Bible.
“All great revolutionaries are guided by love,” said Che Guevara, and in Erin’s work, it is apparent that she falls deeply in love with the people she captures, first in her sketchbooks (themselves a wonder), and later transfers to the canvas, together with the trash collected from their streets and fields. With this bio-dynamic patchwork, Erin has created an important, contemporary body of work that eloquently reflects the duality of the world we find ourselves living in.
It was not until this past Thursday, as I drove to Santa Fe with my daughter Genevieve, that I learned that Erin’s partner Tony, had in fact passed away not long before I saw her at the Harwood that day, last Spring. Having lived through that and rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of loss, makes Erin’s return to Taos, even more poignant and meaningful
La Frontera, opens in conjunction with Work by Women, and is in truth, both paean and tribute to the Everywoman; the Feminine Archetype who claims this Zeitgeist, this moment in time.
Erin kindly answered these questions via email. They’ve been asked (and answered) a thousand times before, but it seemed important to retrace some of her steps, to give context to her inclusion in this show.
Q When I first saw and took note of your work, I recall you were painting small wooden boxes with images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas -in fact a few remnants from that era, still exist on the walls of certain casitas and rooms at El Monte Sagrado, here in Taos – was your initial use of trash, which seems to me to have a somewhat spiritual root – alchemical too in a way, in that you are literally turning dross to gold, by transforming waste into something of beauty – was that directly linked to your Buddhist practice?
A This trajectory in my work requires a brief historical explanation. Nearly twenty years ago, I was studying Buddhist Thangkha Painting, and doing a Buddhist practice. I was working at a coffee shop at the time, and was struck by how much trash was generated and discarded during the course of a single shift. So, I began gathering this post-consumer waste, bringing it home, and employing Thangkha painting techniques, including sacred geometry, to collage Buddhas and Bodhisattvas—eventually exhibiting this work at the café: it was my first solo exhibition in 1998. My use of trash made sense to me on a number of levels, and, the reasons behind it, like the works themselves, are multilayered. First, I believe that artists have always used materials close-at-hand (nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than in New Mexico—where Bulteros use discarded, weather-worn pieces of wood; potters use clay dug right from the earth; etc.); I am no exception: I use what is most readily available, prevalent, and ubiquitous to my era—discarded packaging and product waste from our globalized consumer culture. Secondly, my use of trash is a spiritual practice in the sense that the discarded waste is transfigured, hopefully, into something of beauty.
Finally, using post-consumer waste is a socio-political act in that, not only is it a form of recycling, but also by virtue of the fact that it is written in every language, and gathered from every continent it expresses our interconnectedness and our commonalities as human beings—in what we value, share, consume, and cast away.
Creating many Buddhas, Taras, Dakinis, Bodhisattvas, eventually led me on a path of inquiry: I wanted to know where the embodiment of spiritual ideals—the same ideals I cultivate in my practice, ie Compassion, Wisdom, Clarity, and that these spiritual icons represent — exist in our day and age, in “the realm of Man”? I found my answer in subjects engaged in active compassion within the Civil Rights Movement. I thus began to create works such as Angela Davis as the Green Tara; Bob Moses as the Medicine Buddha; Septima Clark as the Prajnaparamita to pay homage to these individuals. As you pointed out, many of my subjects are no longer seated on a lotus, however, all continue to embody spiritual ideals. For me, the internal struggle is not dissimilar from the external one: it is the story of human pathos—the Four Noble Truths—played out in our minds and hearts as well as upon a global arena. Just as all individuals must contend with, and ultimately liberate themselves from, their own suffering (a suffering rooted in anger, ignorance, desire, etc,); likewise societies must seek liberation from those who seek to oppress them.
Q Much of your work appears to be a direct call to action – or at the very least a call to recognize the tremendous inequality and injustice on this planet, due to Colonial repression and Corporate greed – can you talk about that a little?
A For the past decade and a half, the underlying theme of all of my work is that which I continue to find to be true wherever I have traveled be it Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Europe: that our commonalities as human beings far outweigh our differences. The overwhelming majority of people I have met all over the world are kind, decent human beings whose needs and desires are simple and universal: the necessity of adequate shelter, good food, clean water, the ability to raise and provide for a family, and the opportunity to make use of one’s particular set of skills in order to contribute to their larger communities. Divisions are often either superficial or artificially created based on racial, economic, and national ideologies. Where we are similar is of a more profound metaphysical caliber: the bond between brothers, the love between mother and child, the kinship shared through creative endeavors; these run like threads in the great fabric of generations. My use of trash and discarded packaging, written in every language, gathered from every continent, further expresses our affinities– in what we create, value, share, consume, and cast away.
All of my works share in common the fact that each one is either a direct or symbolic representation of those engaged in the international struggle for social justice. I see beauty inherent in the strength and courage that are necessary attributes of those engaged in struggle, resistance, and defiance, against the catastrophic onslaught of globalization, capitalism, fascism, and ecological devastation. I see our reality as in a state of becoming. The subjects of these paintings are a few among many people working with the skills at hand—be it planting seeds, penning words, educating, organizing—in a limiting present reality that is nonetheless a historical reality susceptible to transformation. Through reflection and action, human beings can truly transform reality—my partner and I were witness to it in Egypt just weeks after Mubarak was ousted: the people of Cairo were directing traffic, cleaning the streets, young people were gathering mandates in order to draft a new constitution (Egypt was directly informed by our time there: based on sketches and drawings I made of young women there ) . In Egypt, as well as in Greece, there was a moment-a window in which an imaginative counter-power prevailed, as in Nicaragua before it, and South Africa, Iran, Cuba, Russia, France. It is the moment worth struggling toward—a moment of humanization and solidarity. The global economic system, in its capitalist form, purports to be an implacable, unchanging, inevitable reality. Yet, like everything else, it is subject to being overhauled, overthrown, transformed—as I’ve depicted in American Women (dismantling the border); should people reflect upon it critically, and then decide how to take action.
Q You have always portrayed women in your work, women from all walks of life, all ethnicities, from every culture and creed. Your paintings have always struck me as incantations of a sort – a call from a deep, archetypal place – for women to rise – no matter their circumstance – to empower themselves. How has this current wave of Nuevo Feminism impacted your work?
I truly believe that, for every tactic employed by those seeking to oppress and subjugate others, for every shackle and chain utilized, there are a thousand ways to unlock, untangle, and break through, those chains. This is why a counter-power rooted in imagination is crucial. There is no one way to attain liberation: each method must be appropriate to the situation at hand, utilizing the information and tools available at the time. For example, in 17th Century England, “sowing the ground with parsnips, carrots, and beans” was considered an act of treason: it was the signature action of the Diggers, gardeners who had been impoverished by England’s sudden and arbitrary process of enclosing and privatizing the Commons. The humble act was the Diggers’ means by which to alleviate hunger, and free themselves from servitude and slavery. They felt that: “this freedom in the common earth is the poor’s right by law of creation and Equity of the Scriptures, for the Earth was not made for a few, but for whole mankind”. Guerilla gardening is an effective act of resistance to this day. The Black Panthers occupying the statehouse was another, and very different, effective method; factor workers occupying and running defunct maquilladoras in Argentina is a third example, immolating oneself—the only recourse for Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, is yet another example, –of which there are countless (and upon which so many of my own works are inspired). The nonviolent methods of the Water Protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota—chaining themselves to bulldozers, linking arms, crawling inside pipes, etc., has had unprecedented reverberations throughout the world. Even if the literal battle is lost and the pipeline is built, the resistance nonetheless is already successful—as it has succeeded in galvanizing Native Americans across hundreds of tribes, as well as peoples all over the US and the world. The struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline has unified peoples across geographic, ethnic, racial, class boundaries in a wholly organic and infectious way—already it has sparked direct actions in defense of the natural world internationally. The same can now be said about the #metoo movement: women throughout the world are supporting one another– whether it be in speaking out against sexual violence, demanding economic equality, or calling out institutionalized misogyny.
What is most crucial, in whatever way forward one chooses to take, is respect for one another and dignity for all.
Q The timing of this Harwood show (Works by Women) could not be more serendipitous, even though you’ve had a difficult personal year, you have agreed to participate in this show which in many ways must feel almost like a homecoming; completing a full circle?
A Yes: it was in Taos where my work took root, developed, and flourished exactly twenty years ago–I had my very first solo show at the Southside Bean in 1998!. For my work to return and be featured at the Harwood Museum is a tremendous honor. Some of the works were created in my studio in Taos and exhibited at the Parks Gallery in Taos before going off into the world on their own trajectory; some viewers may remember particular works, and will hopefully introduce children and grandchildren: the next generation, to the work.
One of my most recent bodies of work was entirely informed and inspired by the people—their struggles and triumphs– of New Mexico. New Mexico–Taos and Santa Fe in particular– has long inspired me perhaps more than any other place in the world: the reason being its incomparable artists—trained in Native and Hispanic traditional techniques—who comment on sociopolitical issues within the framework of these traditions in masterful works that are unique to the world. As an arts community, I think that New Mexico reveals its heart through its actions.
The art scene here is more accessible and inclusive than one might find in the big urban centers of the world– the reason being that much of the best work that New Mexico has to offer is deeply rooted in centuries-old traditions—in Santos, Bultos, Retablos, Pottery, Weaving, Folk Art. In general, New Mexican objects d’art serve a higher spiritual purpose, and/or a functional tangible one, that pre-date the Post Modern conceptual work found in cosmopolitan cities—work that can be inscrutable and even polarizing to the average viewer not versed in that rarefied world. New Mexican art means something—and its meaning can be appreciated universally because it comes from the heart. Living in New Mexico has been advantageous to my creative process– both for the above reasons, and for the spirit of camaraderie that I encountered in the art community: in my decade spent in Taos, but also in Santa Fe and throughout the state in general. New Mexico artists are supportive and encouraging of one another: it is a less competitive environment than an artist might encounter in a big urban center. Again, I attribute this to New Mexico’s traditions: the strong values that both Hispanic and Native cultures place on family and community.
Erin Currier’s critically acclaimed traveling show, La Frontera opens at the Harwood Museum of Art on February 10th, in conjunction with Work by Women.
For more information on Erin Currier and Work by Women, please visit the sites linked below.
Editor’s note: As I worked on this post, I clicked on Erin’s site link to make certain it worked, and was struck by a bit of synchronicity. Apropos of her recent loss, the same refrain (she’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist and she don’t look back) from the same song by Bob Dylan, I had quoted in Monday’s post on Zoe Zimmerman, plays as the site opens. The song itself perhaps, the perfect anthem for women everywhere, right now.
Studio shots of Erin by D’Nelle Garcia
Images of Erin Currier’s work thanks to Erin Currier