Erick Medel Weaves Immigrant Labor Into Vivid Art

The 31-year-old’s first solo show, ”Mariachi,” debuts at South Los Angeles gallery Rusha & Co. on March 24

“It’s the most stereotypical immigrant story,” says Erick Medel, dressed in black Converse, a yellow t-shirt and crisp denim jeans, the same material that provides a ground for his needlepoint paintings depicting the immigrant labor that he encounters every day from his second-floor live-work space in Boyle Heights. 

Born in Puebla, Mexico, Medel first moved to Venice from Mexicali at the age of 13. South of the border, his mother would knit scarves and vests while his father, a hobbyist woodworker, ran a bodega and crafted frames for cartoonish posters of Mexico’s Liga MX professional soccer league, which he would sell from the shop. Once they arrived in Los Angeles, his father started a landscaping business and his mother cleaned houses around Malibu and Brentwood. “A lot of their sacrifices allowed me to be free to pursue something else.” 

While a junior in high school, Medel did just that, gravitating toward photography. He began shooting images of shadows in the streets and people riding the city bus and went on to pursue a studio art degree at UC Santa Cruz. In 2018, Medel earned his MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design. “I was making sculptures embedded with photo elements about car culture and the identity around cars,” he says. Medel began dabbling with textiles for his thesis, which featured a truck bed full of 50 flags stitched together from fleece blankets you’d find at Wal-Mart or in L.A.’s Garment District and “any fabric I thought represented a small part of the U.S.” 

“Pa La Foto (For a Picture),” 2023, polyester thread on denim

Upon returning home to L.A. after grad school, Medel dove further into textiles, making three-dimensional “drawings” on heavy vinyl—he broke several simple sewing machines before moving to industrial grade equipment and dense denim—depicting custom California license plates (think “BADMFER” wrapped in a cobra snake) or a Yosemite Sam on a floor mat-shaped piece emblazoned with “Viva Mexico! Cabrones” in day-glow stitching. While these pieces made their way into group shows at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Spring/Break Art Show, Medel really found his groove (and materials) during the pandemic. 

“I was just looking for an affordable apartment at the time,” Medel says. He found his second-floor space in Boyle Heights two weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown. Despite the constraints of pandemic life, the artist, now 31, immediately felt welcomed by the local Latino community, whose fruit sellers and balloon vendors began to make their way into his tapestries, which he was making with the heavy denim he’d found in the fabric stalls by his old Fashion District studio. The tightness of the denim and the fluidity of the sewing elevated Medel’s work and earned him a solo booth with Seasons L.A. (now Rusha & Co) at the 2022 Zona Maco art fair in Mexico City.

For Mariachi, his solo gallery debut with Rusha & Co., open March 24 through April 29, Medel is engaging the musicians of Mariachi Plaza. Since the 1930s, violinists, guitarists and trumpet players dressed in charro suits and sombreros have gathered at the corner of East First Street and Boyle Avenue, where they perform around an arcade and get hired out to parties around the city. (The layout and process are similar to that of the mariachi crews who inhabit Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City.) Many of the mariachi musicians in Boyle Heights have lived across the street in the historic Boyle Hotel, which dates back to 1889, when Medel engaged a number of them. “For the most part, they’re free agents so if they’re good enough if they have good harmony, the director who arranges the bands will call them for events.”

Erick Medel displays one of his tapestries (LAMag/Michael Slenske)

To create the works for Mariachi, which also features a film, Hilos de Plata (or “Silver Threads”) about his process and the Mariachi superstars who inhabit and inspired many of the works, Medel followed the singers for over a year. He snapped countless photographs of the musicians as they warmed up in the plaza or played events around the neighborhood. He then takes those images, crops them to capture the most evocative perspective, and then begins sewing the images onto the quilting-backed denim. He chooses colors from dozens of spools beside his Juki sewing machine in real-time, like a painter and his compositions—while they evoke everything from Dutch Masters to the East L.A. painter Carlos Almaraz—build energy with every loop of thread, so you can almost feel the motion of the banners swaying above the mariachis or the rhythm of their playing via thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of stitches. There’s almost a dance to the way he uses this technical, garmento labor to depict the equally physical labors of the Latin American immigrants who came before him.           

Some pieces take a few days and some take a few weeks to create, but they all harness the honest ambitions of his subjects. 

“I respect how they’ll do whatever it takes to take care of their families,” says Medel, who has a couple of works on view through May 7 at Craft Contemporary and a large tapestry going to Miami for the group show “Hand Over Hand: Textiles Today,” opening April 30 at Mindy Solomon Gallery. “It’s just like what my dad does, the kind of jobs that Mexican or Latin American immigrants specifically end up having to take to survive. I respect their work ethic.”

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