form & concept and Zane Bennett Contemporary Art are proud to announce a new edition of Flags of Resilience, a long-term, artist-run project featuring commissioned work by local and internationally-known artists in response to their unique and communal experiences amid global upheaval. The series of original flag artworks continues with a new design by Santa Fe-based artist Erin Currier, and will benefit the ACLU of New Mexico.
For her flag design, Currier offered her 2019 painting Salvavidas: Incarcerated Firefighters of Malibu (after Delacroix). She reimagines Delacroix's iconic Liberty Leading the People, evoking her own experiences with the devastating 2018 Woolsey Fire by recasting Parisian revolutionaries as women firefighters. Currier writes, “The piece highlights the inherent dignity of women laborers and incarcerated women the world over, who are all too often disparaged and overlooked.”
you have a BFA in Theater Design. I found this connection to your work captivating, because I feel you are literally setting the stage for a humanist revolution, or evolution conceptually and materially. Can you tell me more about the connection to theater design in your current work?
I love this idea you’ve articulated of “setting the stage for a humanist revolution, or evolution." I remember reading in Herbert Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” years ago that, for Marcuse, every work of art—be it visual art, theatre, dance, music—is a social act, even down to the most seemingly innocuous plein air landscape, because by creating a work of art one is, in a sense, refusing “what is” and instead putting forth and positing a transformation: “what could be."
It is what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as “a creative counter power rooted in the imagination”. Theatre design literally embodies this idea, whereby we would transform scrap plywood into a marble foyer, or discarded styrofoam into a brownstone landing. We would hotglue shards of plastic onto gowns that, from the audience's perspective, would appear as diamonds!
I grew up drawing, painting and collaging with my mother; she, along with my grandfather and other family members, were draftsmen, painters, lithographers, and renderers. In school, as an artist, I got away with a lot: I aced physics because I created a life-sized Einstein for the science department; aced law because I created a series of posters depicting crimes, etc. I was the “class artist” who everyone expected would go to art school.
So, like any teenager, I rebelled: I earned a BFA in theatre design and technical arts! I put myself through college by receiving grants and scholarships and working three jobs. However, by my last year of college, I was spending much of my time on my own work again: on drawing and painting. Within a year or so of graduating, I had my first solo exhibition (of Buddhist deities made of coffee shop trash) at a coffee shop I was working at, and was picked up by galleries immediately afterward.
My dad used to ask me if I was ever going to “use my degree." One day I had an epiphany: in retrospect, my work is theater in that, from a distance, it is like a painting, yet, up close, one realizes the painting is comprised of cigarette packages, cereal boxes, and muay Thai flyers!! It is the transformation of trash into treasure, reality into magic.
Your work is a fully fleshed out social concept, in materials and subject matter. You elevate discarded items to bring social concepts to the forefront of your work, while turning traditional art historical tropes on their head. I want to hear from you about this practice, what it means for you personally, what it is imbued with socially- and or politically for your viewers?
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 for 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.
People the world over love to share laughs and to share a good meal. 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 kinships 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.
Several of my latest series of works pay homage to classical and modernist masterpieces while addressing contemporary issues that have long compelled my work: immigrant rights, worker's rights, women's rights, civil rights; in short: human dignity.
For example, Eugene Delacroix's epic and controversial revolutionary painting (hidden for many years by the French monarchy so as not to risk inciting further rebellions), Liberty Leading the People, provides the composition, palette, and overall "weather." It is the groundwork upon which I have portrayed incarcerated women firefighters in California.
In my rendition, as in the era in which we find ourselves—an era that has seen a resurgence of women’s rights and rights of detainees—the vanguard of feminine strength and grace in action is in the form of an incarcerated woman. (Rather serendipitously, Liberty Leading the People had already spawned an immigrant rights-related homage over a century ago in the form of Freder Auguste Bartholdi's Liberty Enlightening the World: otherwise known as The Statue of Liberty!)
As an artist who traverses many worlds, how has this time been for you? Have you traveled? What would you say this time reflects to you, as someone who has seen and connected to much of the world?
On a personal level, my days are filled in the way they have always been filled, throughout my life, no matter where and when I’ve found myself in the world: with spiritual practice, martial arts, walking, drawing, painting, collaging, writing, reading, dance—all of which I do outdoors as much as possible.
I have been more grateful than ever to be based in New Mexico: a vast, bright, beautiful place where people have always lived relatively simply, spend a lot of time outside, and value strong community. The rest of the USA is finally catching up through this pandemic to what New Mexicans have always known to be true, and how New Mexicans have always lived: in connection with Nature and Spirit.
It is a place where artists have used materials close-at-hand for thousands of years to the present: Pueblo Potters dig clay from the rivers, bulteros (or "trash" artists) craft piñon, ecologically-minded artists stage junk mail fashion shows and display tin can sculptures. It is a place where people still barter and trade, and neighbors and families share what they have with one another, where it is not unusual to hear “this one’s on me."
New Mexico is a place where people ALREADY grow gardens, ride bicycles and horses, bake bread (or tortillas and fry bread, anyway!), hang out with each other outdoors, piece together unorthodox ways of making a living, etc. It’s been interesting to see people all over the rest of the country begin to figure it out!
I think these times have highlighted the necessity of community and human connection—not virtual but real human connection. Interaction—human touch and contact—are as vital as water, food and breathe, for life. I’ve been especially aware of and concerned of elders and people who are isolated due to compromised healt, and tried to reach out as much as possible through a phone call, or a little gift left on a porch, or even a masked conversation from across twenty feet.
It has become resoundingly clear that we humans need one another!
In your artist statement you reiterate your belief in human connectivity above division. Can you reflect on that sentiment during this time?
I have been deeply concerned by what has appeared to be a growing divisiveness in our country and beyond: one in which there are two rigid ideologies coupled with an ever-pervasive pressure to align oneself with one or the other. It is at odds with what I have always loved most about the United States of America: its diversity of thought, its freedom of expression and ideas.
We are living in a dangerous time in which the government, the media and institutions are so attached to their respective ideologies that they literally seek to shut down, silence, and censor anything that remotely threatens their agenda. Social media only fuels the situation by which its algorithms reflect back to its users only the information that each already believes to be true.
If we are to heal and move forward at all as a nation, it will only be through inclusion: through a willingness to bring every perspective to the table—however distasteful—and to allow every voice its chance to speak. This is why I find original thinkers like Joe Rogan to be refreshing in these times: those who give voice to a diverse range of philosophers, anthropologists, and neurologists. He's spoken to everyone from Bernie Sanders to Alex Jones; from Glenn Greenwald to Elon Musk; from Brother Dr. Cornel West to Jordan Peterson.
Rogan is a complex man who does not easily fit into either of the dominant ideologies: many of his views on issues would be considered leftist or progressive, others would be considered right or Republican, still others are so "out there" as to be outside of the spectrum.
This is also why an organization like the ACLU does such crucial work: true freedom is won by fighting for the right to speak of those with whom you disagree.
This is what gives me hope: that Americans are complex and myriad, and, as humans subject to the laws of the human realm, we not only have a great capacity for inflicting and enduring suffering, we also have the potential for limitless compassion and empathy.
It is more critical than ever that we each strive to open our minds and our hearts.
I feel like this concept of nurturing “leavings” can be revolutionary in its transgression. What is the experience of collecting refuse around the world like? What has it taught you about the human experience? You describe this as a spiritual practice. I wonder if there are aspects of it that are sacred or private to you, and whether I’m crossing any boundaries by asking how you go about it?
This trajectory in my work requires a brief historical explanation. Nearly twenty years ago, I was studying Buddhist thangka 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 thangka painting techniques, including sacred geometry, to collage Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I eventually exhibited 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 sociopolitical 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 and Bodhisattvas, eventually led me on a path of inquiry. I wanted to know where the embodiment of spiritual ideals that these spiritual icons represent exist in our day and age, in “the realm of man." They were the same ideals that I cultivate in my practice: compassion, wisdom, clarity.
I found my answer in subjects engaged in active compassion within the civil rights movement. I thus began to create works depicting Angela Davis as the Green Tara, Bob Moses as the Medicine Buddha, and 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 of Buddhism—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 oppressive idealogies.
Your flag features your painting Salvavidas, which depicts Delacroix’s “Liberte—as you say “through vanguard of feminine strength and grace in action— in the form of an inmate woman and firefighter.” I wonder how different viewers have connected to this piece so far, and how you feel it connects to the Covid/Trump Era?
As I previously mentioned, Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, was the inspiration for the signature painting of this selection of work. In my rendition, as in the era in which we find ourselves—an era in which more people in the United States are incarcerated per capita than in any other country in the world, I have portrayed Delacroix’s “Liberte”—the vanguard of feminine strength and grace in action—in the form of an inmate woman and firefighter.
In October 2018, I was at Leo Carrillo Beach with a friend—a Malibu resident—watching a group of young women clad in orange jumpsuits hanging out, joking and enjoying the day. It turns out they were enrolled in the Conservation (Fire) Camp Program, a joint initiative between the California Department of Corrections and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that trains nonviolent offenders to fight fires. A month later, I had planned to visit my Malibu friend, however, the night before was when the now infamous Woolsey fire ignited. Within hours my friends, along with some 250,000 people, were evacuated.
Salvavidas: Inmate Firefighters of Malibu celebrates the firefighters—of whom 30-40% were prisoners—whose fearlessness saved nearly all of the quarter of a million people evacuated. On a broader level, the piece highlights the inherent dignity of women laborers and incarcerated women the world over: who are all too often disparaged, overlooked and underpaid. At the time I created the piece, California's incarcerated firefighting force was earning $2 a day and an additional $1 for every hour fighting a fire.
The response to the piece—which was first exhibited at the LA Art Show-- has been overwhelmingly positive. I have hoped to bridge some of the divisiveness I spoke of earlier in this interview through art that comments on the sociopolitical by transcending political parties and ideologies.
I think that the subject of the firefighter is universal and dates back to time immemorial. I have received positive feedback from firefighters, police officers, first responders, workers, ex-prisoners, Californians, actors, filmmakers, other artists, gallerists, writers, women and people of every gender, ethnicity, and age. The firefighter is the embodiment of the human spirit: of fearlessness and strength, of bravery and compassion in action.