The lives of many of Mexican heritage are punctuated by performances; an ensemble of mariachi musicians celebrates a birth, performs for a first communion, plays for the crowds gathered at weddings and birthdays, and is hired for the commemorative rites of the funeral. Their tune is a traditional genre of music dating back hundreds of years to the rural communities of western Mexico, now as proud and bold of a sound as the musicians that troupe from location to location to perform for their listeners. As boisterous as their ballads are the performers’ outfits: their tightly-fitting ornamented pants, short jackets, embroidered belts, boots, wide bow ties, and sombreros. Their attire, known as the charro suit, has become a universally recognized symbol of national pride and Mexican identity.
Mariachi, Erick Medel’s debut solo exhibition with Rusha & Co., celebrates these performers, featuring them centerstage in his works. The musicians, armed with their violins, guitarrónes, trumpets, and guitars, appear ready for battle. Or, as in the case of Mariachi on 1st St. (2022), might be marching home. Their uniforms are akin to armor, shining and courageous, equally as important as the men donning the charros. It is no coincidence that their getups can be traced back to the liberators of the Mexican Revolution. Some of the men, as in Violin (2023) or En La Noche (At Night) (2022) perform their solos in solitude, breaking away from their ensemble for their moment to shine. Other scenes, as in Showtime (2022), Pa La Foto (For a Picture) (2023), or the largest piece in the exhibition, Listos! (2023), feature the band as a body. Medel’s depictions of his heroes emphasize his chosen protagonists as a type of celebrity, iconic figures deserving of recognition and angling for glory.
Continuing his practice of documenting everyday life for Medel, his family, and the community of Mexican-Americans in which he associates, his new exhibition draws sole inspiration from these itinerant entertainers. Equal parts documentarian and synthesizer, Medel strings the lived experiences of his community into stitched scenes of vibrant color, tactile textures, and labored surfaces. His textiles are grounded in observing the world around him, imbued with a sense of the photographic. Born in the city of Puebla, Mexico, Medel now lives and works in Boyle Heights, just blocks from the famed Mariachi Plaza de Los Ángeles. Situated at the intersection of 1st Street and Boyle Avenue, Mariachi Plaza has, for nearly a century, been a gathering place for the musicians who stand ready to be hired to play in restaurants, at private parties, or for community events. Like Medel, these musicians are ambassadors of their culture, preserving and passing on to the coming generations the intangible heritage and traditions of the Mexican people.
Medel’s practice is a continuation and preservation of his family’s creative practices – his mother’s practice knitting, and his father’s woodworking. It was on his mother’s sewing machine where Medel’s embroidered works were first drafted. Vacillating in form between sculpture, painting, and craft, Medel’s process of creating his denim canvases is laborious and painstakingly detailed, serving as a reminder of the immigrant labor which underpins life in increasingly globalized metropolises. His works on canvases are embroidered with shining and colorful threads, with each stitch harkening towards the flamboyant outfits of the mariachi ensembles. A charro suit with custom embroidery by legendary Boyle Heights supplier for the mariachis, La Casa Del Mariachi, hangs amongst the works on the walls of the gallery, functioning sculpturally and acting as a stand-in for the Medel’s own presence within the exhibition.
In his studio, Medel’s industrial sewing machine exudes its own rhythm, with his hands guiding his denim canvases back and forth as the machine perforates and threads the images. He becomes a musician in his own right, orchestrating his images in tempo, with each line of string paralleling musical notation on the canvas. Medel’s approach is intuitive and—like a sort of improvisational instrumentation—spontaneous, with each mark made distinctly and each colorful thread chosen from an assortment of spools.
The scenes of everyday life portrayed by Medel are as much in reference to the lineages of genre paintings by Dutch Masters, the French realist paintings of Gustave Courbet, or the 17th century works of Diego Velázquez as they are in reference to the Chicano muralists like Chaz Bojórquez or Carlos Almaraz who have transformed the scenery of East Los Angeles on the walls of buildings throughout the neighborhood. Medel’s practice highlights these less-recognized forms of fine art, glorifying his roots through his subject matter and his choice of medium.
Erick Medel was born in Puebla, Mexico in 1992. He holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Recent exhibitions include Strings of Desire at Craft Contemporary, Los Angeles (2023); Dirty Realism: Otra noche en L.A. at Veta Galeria, Madrid (2023); With Us at Ojiri Projects, London (2022, solo); Unseen Threads at Martha’s, Austin (2022); Apple in the Dark at Harkawik, New York (2022); a solo presentation at Zona Maco in Mexico City with Rusha and Co. (2021); Hustling De Sol A Sol at Martha’s, Austin (2021, solo); The Human Scale at Rochester Art Center (2021); Breakfast in America at Rusha & Co. (2021); Still Here at Martha’s, Austin (2020); and Everyday, Everyday, Everyday, Everyday Freedoms, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore (2019).