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  • Rafa Esparza at the Whitney Biennial

    He never practiced art in pursuit of fame, and up through now has still never had his own studio, but right now Rafa Esparza is a star at the Whitney Biennial. In January, I had the privilege of meeting him during the back-breaking preparation for the show. The full, unedited text of my piece of Cultured is below. 

    HED Groundswell

    DEK At the Whitney Biennial, one artist uses the earth as his platform. 

    True to his father’s process, Los Angeles artist Rafa Esparza makes adobe bricks by hand; he kneads together mounds of clay dirt, horse manure, water, and straw underfoot, then loads the muddy batter into wheelbarrows to pour into rows of rectangular wooden molds.

    “It’s back-breaking work,” says Esparza, who, in preparation for the upcoming Whitney Biennial, is in the process of making 5,000.

    Brick-making, which Esparza views as a dying art, is a skill he learned from his father, who had built his first home out of them in his native pueblo in Mexico. Esparza himself was born and raised in the L.A. suburb of East Pasadena, where, far from the glossy veneer of Hollywood, the mailbox of his childhood home was riddled with bullet holes. The brick, a simple piece of dirt formed and pressed into the foundation of a home, became a potent symbol within his body of work—one of heritage and personal history, of racial identity, and of displacement.

    “I wanted to develop a practice that could be legible and accessible outside of an institution, and could be firmly grounded in the land,” says Esparza, “and it wasn’t happening through painting.” Earth, on the other hand, is a medium embedded with stories—and consequently, trauma. Having studied the rituals and iconography of native Californian and Mexican tribes, and, as a formerly closeted gay man, “trying to find my place in them,” his practice also employs his own body. He has buried himself, encased himself in concrete, and inserted hooks into his skin. Far outside the sterility of the white cube, he performs on sites of dark cultural significance, which abound in L.A.: on the banks of the L.A. river, for example, a space once occupied by the Tungva people that has been physically pushed aside and paved over; or within the sightlines of the L.A. County Jail, an institution with a history of imprisoning queer people.

    Consequently, when he was invited to participate in the 2016 Hammer Museum biennial “Made in L.A.,” Esparza was reticent to say yes. “That took me by surprise,” says LAXART director Hamza Walker, who co-curated the biennial with Aram Moshayedi. “But he inserts so much of himself, his identity, and his body into his works that he’s not just going to give them to somebody. When you already have a sense of what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for, you don’t need the museum. That’s rare for a young artist.”

    When Esparza ultimately agreed to participate, he created a performative dialogue around an act of physical labor. In Elysian Park, where an entire Mexican-American community was displaced to build the Dodgers stadium and today is known as a for gay cruising, and gunshots resound from the nearby police academy, he buried a suite of objects for Walker and Moshayedi, alongside a few artist peers, to unearth.

    “They were symbols, talismanic relics relating to the neighborhood where he came from,” said Walker, who had unearthed the bullet-punctured mailbox of Esparza’s childhood home. Moshayedi unearthed an armchair with a cactus bursting from its seat, which became the centerpiece of the visually arresting “Tierra,” a floor of adobe bricks that covered 1,200 square feet of the Hammer Museum’s mezzanine level.  

    Now, in the driveway of fellow artist Molly Larkey’s Frogtown, L.A. studio (to date, he’s never had his own), Esparza is preparing to transport mounds of his native land to New York in the form of adobe bricks. Inside the white cube of a Whitney Museum’s gallery, they’ll take the shape of a rotunda, where he’ll exhibit the work of fellow L.A. Chicano artists, including Ramiro Gomez, Jr., Beatriz Cortez, and Nao Bustamante. His inclusion of his peers within his piece is a gesture that speaks to his devotion to community.

    “Rafa’s work comes from such a generous place of engagement and connection,” says Whitney Biennial co-curator Christopher Y. Lew. “With this sense of divisiveness that we read about and experience at local, national, and international levels, his is a spirit that feels urgent right now, a positive counter to those unruly forces.”