Commonwealth and Council

Art Basel 2021

rafa esparza: verde


rafa esparza: verde

Commonwealth and Council presents rafa esparza’s verde, a meditation on land, kinship, and leisure in painted adobe that draws upon Indigenous artmaking traditions to cultivate a shared responsibility to steward land and community through an expressive unity of ground and image. From land we rise, to land we return; verde emphasizes the indelible connectedness of all lived experience to the land.

esparza has painted portraits of family and close friends in verdant outdoor settings, directly onto slabs of sun-baked adobe mudbrick—used for building by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, over the course of millennia. Sourced from eminently available natural materials, adobe is sustainable and nontoxic. As painted ground, it complicates the distinction between surface and subject, lending its own irregular texture to the paintings and figuring prominently in their final appearance. Shallow grooves and ridges range across each slab, describing a unique and varied topography, while the odd strands of hay protruding from invisible earthen depths disrupt any conventional sense of the image plane. 

Each portrait compresses multiple layers of time and place into a kind of living icon, depicting a loved one not only as they were but also envisioning their future, haloed in greenery and slivers of city, each holding their pictorial ground while in turn beheld amid the public surroundings of exhibition: not taking up but sharing space. In G’s Up, a man looks out over a veiny screen of breadfruit leaves that conceals all but the upper part of his face and a hand loosely grasping the stem. He confronts us in guarded, perhaps joking, salutation: “Hey. I see you.” Against dominant narratives of migration, displacement, and strife, the panels envisage Brown bodies in comfort and at rest, strikingly involved with their pictorial surroundings, not merely occupying them. At once familiar and allegorical, the images infuse scenes from contemporary life with suggestive nods to Maya iconography: a young woman celebrating her quinceañera holds a sprig of sage in place of a bouquet; another woman stands before a rose garden holding an ear of native corn, her pink eyeshadow and lime-green nails echoing vividly in the rich blooms and grass behind her.

A replica of a mural from the interior of the Maya palace at Bonampak comprises the literal ground of this Brown pleasure garden, directly contextualizing esparza’s portraits within an Indigenous legacy of public monuments. In bringing the elevated imagery of royal festivities to the exhibition floor, esparza restages it as not only a vaunted view of life in a distant Mesoamerican world, a curious feast for the eyes, but that place where life takes place: the land beneath our feet.

rafa esparza (b. 1981, Los Angeles; lives and works in Los Angeles) is a multidisciplinary artist whose work reveals his interests in history, personal narratives, and kinship, his own relationship to colonization and the disrupted genealogies that it produces. esparza employs site-specificity, materiality, memory, and what he calls (non)documentation as primary tools to investigate and expose ideologies, power structures, and binary forms of identity that establish narratives, history, and social environments. esparza’s recent projects are grounded in laboring with land and adobe-making, a skill learned from his father, Ramón Esparza. In so doing, the artist invites Brown and Queer cultural producers to realize large-scale collective projects, gathering people together to build networks of support outside of traditional art spaces. 

Solo exhibitions have been held at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2021); MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA (2019); ArtPace, San Antonio, TX (2018); Atkinson Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA (2017); Ballroom Marfa, TX (2017); Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, CA (2015); Bowtie Project, Los Angeles (2015); and Vincent Price Art Museum, Monterey Park, CA (2013). esparza has performed at art institutions including Performance Space New York and the Ellipse, Washington, D.C. (2019); Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2017); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); and Clockshop, Bowtie Project, Los Angeles (2014). Selected group shows were held at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles (2021); Regen Projects, Los Angeles (2021); Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, TX (2020); Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles (2020); San Diego Art Institute, CA (2019); DiverseWorks, Houston, TX (2019); Craft Contemporary, Los Angeles (2019); GAMMA Galeria, Guadalajara, Mexico (2019); Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha, NV (2017); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2017); LA><ART, CA (2017); PARTICIPANT, INC., New York (2016); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); and Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena (2015). esparza is a recipient of the US Latinx Artist Fellowship (2021), Lucas Artists Fellowship (2020), Artpace International Artist Residency (2018), Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award (2017), Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant (2015), California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Arts (2014), and Art Matters Foundation grant (2014). esparza will participate in a two-person exhibition with Timo Fahler at MOCA Tucson, AZ opening October 2021.