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"Lazarus" explores immigration and cultural identity in America

The Firehouse Art Center’s latest exhibition brings together five artists to address immigration and cultural identity in America.

The Firehouse Art Center’s latest exhibition brings together five artists to address immigration and cultural identity in America.

The exhibit, called “Lazarus,” takes its name from the poet Emma Lazarus, whose poem fragment, “The New Colossus,” is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York City. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

That poem fragment features in the work of Joy Nagy, one of the artists in the exhibition. Translated into over two dozen languages, “The New Colossus” has been transcribed onto sheets of porcelain clay, with a portion of the work on display at the Firehouse. 

Lazarus is also a figure from the Bible’s New Testament Gospel of John (John 11:1–44), where Jesus Christ resurrects the fallen man in front of witnesses. Firehouse curator Brandy Coons said that the idea of Lazarus tied in with Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead festivities the Firehouse traditionally helps coordinate with the city of Longmont.

The Day of the Dead is about continual life and the afterlife, Coons said. The connection she made with the dual identity experienced by American immigrants and children of immigrants helped draw the lines between the artists for the gallery exhibition.

“A lot of that dual identity story being about regeneration, rebirth and reinvention, taking something and bringing it forward or back, that runs through all the work,” Coons said.

Coons wanted the exhibition to be representative of the diversity in the community, to keep it as culturally open as possible, she said. 

“It’s about honestly looking at and celebrating a diversity of perspective,” Coons said.

Aside from Nagy’s ceramics, “Lazarus” features the works of Indigenous artist Gregg Deal, Vietnamese-American Thinh Dinh, Bulgarian artist Boryana Rusenova Ina and Longmont’s own Grace Gutierrez. Each artist brings their own cultural history and perspective through the work.

Deal’s work addresses the intersections of Indigenous identities in pop culture, from children’s costumes and sports mascots to beer signs. The work, painting and collage, confronts representation and the American identity from an Indigenous point of view. Deal has been featured in countless national exhibitions and also gave a Ted Talk on Indigenous existence in Western culture.

Ina uses pictorial and landscape style to examine and re-imagine relationships with foreign and native lands, she said in her artist statement. The work holds “implicit messages about belonging, ownership and consumption,” the statement reads.

“I subvert our perception of what is a familiar place and emphasize the role of landscape in constructing ideas of home and collective identity,” Ina said.

Dinh, a Denver-based artist, uses lithograph and printmaking on colored paper to create fictitious landscapes. Dinh, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam at a young age, said he didn’t feel attached to Vietnam but also a sense of disconnection to the U.S. 

The landscapes are captured within the silhouettes of vessels to create a sense of two worlds, a liminal space of “cultural identity filtered by memories and feelings of displacement and isolation,” Dinh said in his artist statement. The intention is to present a collision of East and West for the viewer to consider the immigrant experience, he said.

“The commentary focuses on consumerism, constructions of cultural identity and my reflections on contemporary events,” Dinh said. “These spaces serve as mind maps, with symbols and memories nested within one another, an odd mix of old and new.”

Gutierrez, also the assistant curator for the Firehouse, has presented work in Firehouse member shows before but “Lazarus'' will be her first exhibition in the main gallery. 

“It’s a full circle moment,” Gutierrez said. “From intern, to curator, to this. I’m really grateful that (Coons) invited me to participate.”

Gutierrez is bringing a series of portraits to the exhibition, inspired by the Rasquache-style of art from the Chicano movement of the 60s. Rasquache originated as a derogatory term to describe the taste of the Mexican lower class, Gutierrez said, but has since been reclaimed by artists to celebrate “the resourcefulness of those who have very little.”

Using cheap materials, kitsch and clutter in the artwork, Gutierrez addresses her own Chicanx and mixed-ethnicity heritage and struggles with belonging in both parts of her identity.

“It’s a push and pull of where you belong,” Gutierrez said. “From childhood it was ‘assimilate’ but then ‘take pride in who you are,’ so it was a confusing childhood.”

Rasquache artists use material to question who belongs, Gutierrez said, and she wants to use that style to push that sense of belonging, or not, into the artwork. Some portraits of friends and family members are painted on oilcloth, but all her subjects share feelings of insecurity about being of mixed ethnicity. One of Gutierrez’s subjects is a close friend, she said, and they had many conversations about American identity. To represent that in the Rasquache style, Gutierrez will hang objects that are tied to the subject’s identity - strings of beer cans, an angle grinder and jewelry.

“These things are maybe tacky or trashy but they tell our stories,” Gutierrez said.

Alongside "Lazarus," the Firehouse will host the annual Dia de los Muertos Catrina paintings from Firehouse members in the South Gallery.

“Lazarus” officially opens to the public on October 9 during the Firehouse Art Center’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations.


 
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