ANTONIA A. PEREZ repurposes post-consumer detritus, most notably plastic bags, in vibrantly colorful, meticulously crocheted sculptures and textiles. She highlights the functional role of decorative forms like the doily, originally developed to hide flaws or stains on household surfaces, and ironically evokes the notion of the family heirloom to underscore the excess of the manufactured waste we can't get rid of. Antonia earned her BA in 2006 from State University of New York, Empire State College, an her MFA in 2010 from City University of New York, Queens College. She was the recipient of a 2011 Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program Award. She was selected as a 2013 Smack Mellon Hot Pick and was a Back in Five Minutes Artist-in-Residence at El Museo del Barrio in 2014. In 2015, she was a nominee for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. You can see her work in Txt: art, language, media, curated by Lauren Kelly and Rosio Aranda-Alvarado, at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling in Harlem through June 2016. You can also see her piece Market Bag (2014) and catch Antonia performing an on-going action (crocheting) at Cuchifritos Gallery in New York until March 27, 2016 in Lettuce, Artichokes, Red Beets, Mango, Broccoli, Honey and Nutmeg: The Essex Street Market as Collaborator, curated by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful. (Bring your unwanted plastic bags to the gallery and exchange them for a tote bag to shop at the Market. Offer valid while supplies last.) Antonia lives and works in Long Island City, New York.
OtherPeoplesPixels: When did you first learn to crochet? What drove you to learn this skill?
Antonia Perez: My Hungarian-American maternal grandmother taught me the rudiments of crochet when I was about 15 years old. She had already taught me how to knit. I could make a scarf or shawl at that point, but I wasn’t deeply interested in pursuing knitting. In Mexico, I had seen many beautiful examples of crocheted tablecloths, doilies, dresses and other household items in the homes of my aunts and cousins. Women on both sides of my family were tremendously skilled needle workers. This was something that was just taken for granted. They weren’t considered artists, but they were artists. I admired them all and wanted to emulate them, but I have never approached the level of their mastery.
Once I learned the basic stitches, I began crocheting handbags and scarves, designing them by trial and error. I did this to relax and to make beautiful wearable things, never connecting it to art. I was already studying art in high school, and for many years I made paintings and thought of myself as a painter.
OPP: When did plastic bags enter the scene?
AP: One day in 2004 I had an epiphany in my kitchen. The mound of plastic bags that I saved under the sink had gotten so big that the cabinet door no longer closed. I took out all the bags and automatically sorted them by color, suddenly seeing that they created a full spectrum. I realized that they could be an art material (since I had no intention of throwing them away). My first pieces made with plastic bags were sewn by hand into what I thought of as plastic bag paintings. I did this for about four years while I also made paintings on canvas and paper. I was also sewing into the paper and crocheting small doily shapes with yarn and affixing them to the canvases. The plastic bag paintings didn’t satisfy me though. In 2008, I decided to attempt crocheting the bags; I was really excited about their potential.
OPP: Color is a significant aspect of your work, both in your Tissue Box sculptures and in pieces like Estas En Tu Casa
(2015). The color is tantalizing, comforting and thrilling for me. It
creates desire, wonder and pleasure. But I’m also aware that the color
comes directly out of an underlying marketing strategy to sell the
objects that you repurpose in your work. Is this a contradiction or is
this apparent conflict actually a significant part of your intention in
using these throwaway materials?
AP: Color has always fascinated me. It is so seductive, and it definitely has an emotional hold over me. It is what led me to transforming the bags and the boxes into art objects. The paradox of the unexpected beauty of the plastic bags and their undeniable role as a marketing tool as well as an environmental hazard has intrigued me from the beginning. At times I am so deeply engaged with the pigmentation of the bags that I forget about the fact that it is plastic. It becomes just the color I am using to make an image. I use their aesthetic appeal to draw you in—as I am drawn in—and they become part of my own strategy to signal their role in our contemporary consumerist culture of buying and discarding. At the same time, every plastic bag I use is one that doesn’t go to the landfill.
OPP: What does the form of the doily mean to you?
AP: The doily is a primary form, particularly for crochet. I have a personal connection to this form through familial associations; I think of the generations of women who designed and made doilies. I use scale to elevate their status from their humble origins to the stature they deserve. I find the geometric nature of doilies very appealing, whether concentric circles or eight pointed stars. The mathematics of making doilies forces me to focus on the structure of the form more than the color and takes my mind in different directions. Seeking to lift the doily from obscurity, I have also used it as a bold sign, employing its form in a repetitive wall pattern.
The original intent of doilies—to cover up something unsightly with something pretty—remains in the context in which I am using them as well. You might say that I am disguising the ugly side of the plastic bags through their transformation into a doily. I used the doily form to construct Black Lace, which was made for an exhibition at the Northern Manhattan Artists Alliance, part of El Museo del Barrio’s “S Files” Biennial. I had been thinking about the handmade lace of the black mantilla traditionally used in Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries because I had seen Goya’s The Duchess of Alba hanging for many years in The Hispanic Society of America Museum in Northern Manhattan. Using black bodega bags to create this lace, my intention was to play with the religious aura of the black mantilla through a work that has seductive implications.
OPP: Could you talk about the concept of the heirloom and the irony in your body of work Heirloom Collection?
AP: An heirloom represents a legacy to ones descendants. Plastic bags are perhaps one of the unintended heirlooms that will remain on earth for generations to come.
The idea for the Heirloom Collection came about as I began thinking of the kinds of things women once made by hand for their homes: exquisitely embroidered linens, finely crocheted curtains, handmade lace and garments, quilts. These items were treasured by families, especially the female members, and passed down through generations as family heirlooms. Crocheting curtains, doilies, towels and potholders out of plastic bags pretty much guarantees that they’ll be around for generations. The things I have made with irony are not the fine and delicate linens, but they do reference the labor of fine needlework. I have intended them as an inheritance for my son.
OPP: Do artists have an ethical responsibility not to create more waste in the world?
AP: I think as humans, given the situation we are in now, we all have an ethical responsibility not to create more waste, to reduce our carbon footprints and to make a strong effort to conserve the resources of the earth and not pollute it. This sense of responsibility certainly forms a significant part of the motivation for using my chosen materials and often is key to understanding the intention of individual pieces. However, my work is also driven by my desire to elevate the status of handmade objects, my interest in textiles, textile design and their position in historical and contemporary culture.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show on view at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art until March 27, 2016.