BY Travis Diehl in Features | 20 MAR 17
Featured in
Issue 186

Land Rites

In the work of Rafa Esparza, colonialism, family history and sex collide with the landscape of Los Angeles 

BY Travis Diehl in Features | 20 MAR 17

On the west bank of the concrete-lined Los Angeles River, as it runs through Frogtown, a few new cafes and an urban kayak rental store line a well-lit bike path. On the east bank, a few tents and tarps huddle under a bridge. Down a disused causeway, into the undergrowth and through a fence, is the Bowtie: several acres of asphalt shaved into a point between the river and a commuter railway. At its tip is a sort of ‘earthwork’ – Michael Parker’s The Unfinished (2014), a shallow trench cut into the pavement to outline an Egyptian obelisk. The monument, lying in grave-like repose, is a blunt symbol of conquest made vulnerable. To Los Angeles artist Rafa Esparza, it is an obvious stage. In residence at the park in 2014, under the auspices of Clockshop, a local arts nonprofit, he and his family spent weeks making hundreds of adobe bricks to clad the obelisk’s surface – a work called Building: A Simulacrum of Power (2014). The closing performance took place at sundown. Four dancers, choreographed by Rebeca Hernandez, crossed, slipped into and recrossed the trench, while Esparza performed a traditional Danza Azteca at the obelisk’s base, complete with loincloth, pheasant feathers and ankle rattles. He then crawled its 40-metre-length on his belly and, reaching the tip, stripped down to a jockstrap and straddled it – pausing for a moment in the attitude of the monumentally fucked.

Esparza’s gestures, like his materials, have a tricksterish elegance: where they are plainly symbolic, even elemental, their cumulative weight is enough to throw our assumptions off balance. The adobe bricks, for example – something of a signature for the artist – combine blue-collar drudgery and artistic ‘practice’ with a sense of tierra, a word with poetic reflections of soil, earth, land and dirt. Esparza often makes the adobe with his father, who built his first house from these same sort of bricks. This is not only a performance of labour, construction/erection, masculinity and paternity: it’s a ritual work that aims to help the father come to terms with his son’s sexuality. And, if the phallic imperial obelisk figures domination, Esparza turns this same symbol towards his own pleasure. Indeed, in that prone moment, were the obelisk suddenly to rise, the artist would end up on top.

Rafa Esparza and Timo Fahler, ‘A Post-Industrial Snake’, 2016, installation view at Club Pro, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Club Pro, Los Angeles; photograph: Jeff McLane

Such is Esparza’s knack for incorporating violent, colonial histories into work that gathers, rather than destroys. In his series of ‘Love Bird’ sculptures (2011–ongoing), the artist shreds and restitches Nike Cortez hi-top trainers into pigeons, hawks and fighting cocks – fetishes that combine and contain the conquistador cross and consumerist swoosh. Esparza’s performances meet recent art history through the coded authenticity of soil, labour and blood – and by the use of his body. Bound with rope on a public walkway, the artist channels the street theatre of Chicano artist group Asco; his razored and bleeding fingertips or torn piercings invoke performance artist Ron Athey. His adobe pavements are a fraught send-up of Carl Andre (and, yes, you can walk on them); while, sunk to his waist in soil or partly encased in concrete, he echoes the earthy self-burials of Ana Mendieta.

Esparza was born in Pasadena, to Mexican parents, and attended East Los Angeles College before earning an art degree from UCLA. Winding between cultures, his work confronts not just the canon, but how it’s enforced. For El regalo (The Gift, 2013), Esparza burned a copy of Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (2005), then used the ashes in a performance during a visit to a friend’s class on Chicana/o art. During his solo exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum, attached to East Los Angeles College, the artist moved through the neighbouring pre-Columbian galleries – not to smash the objects, but to take Polaroids, adding the snaps to a rubbish bag full of leaves, condom wrappers, scraps of clothing and other relics from the gay cruising grounds of LA’s Elysian Park. Later, from within a circle of this conglomerate, Esparza performed a series of rituals – finally pouring the urine of three friends into a vase of flowers and setting the vase on a plinth, with the caption ‘U.R.N.’ – as in an artefact, as in ‘urine’, as in ‘you are in’. The performance is called Fuck your Ancestors. (2014), its double entendre doubling over passive iconoclasm with an almost-incestual erotics, while embracing a curse.

Rafa Esparza, The Mexika Eagle, 2015, performance documentation at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Julia Pham Vu

This ‘productive ambiguity’, in which exclusion angles toward inclusion, extends to Esparza’s audience – com­prising not just art buffs but his friends, family and neighbours, as well as those for whom his often-peripheral venues have other uses. Bust. A Meditation on Freedom. (2015) took place in the shadow of the so-called Twin Towers Correctional Facility in LA’s Chinatown, on a street lined with bail bondsmen. Esparza had friends bury him in concrete to his ankles (his shoes, per usual: Nike Cortez) then apply a sheath of gravel, concrete and plywood from ankles to armpits, transforming him into the image of a living ‘portrait bust’. Esparza picked up a hammer and chisel and ‘busted out’ – as if he were a classical sculptor releasing the shape latent in the marble or a convict chipping his way free. It is also, pointedly, the image of the body escaping a staid concept of art. Esparza’s performances draw the art public’s gaze to the site from the site – rather than simply indicating, didactically and distantly, a system that incarcerates a disproportionate number of black and brown Angelenos. Instead, prisoners, their visiting families, the police and bondsmen doing their jobs nearby are both his audience and his subject.

Whether at the back end of Chinatown, on the far bank of the LA River or under the Boyle Heights end of the river-spanning 4th St. Viaduct, Esparza animates the interstitial city: areas not so much abandoned as ignored – and, indeed, that come with an ignored public. A 2012 performance, titled STILL, is one of Esparza’s earliest to use the hidden groves of Elysian Park – where hikers pass by day, the homeless set up camp at dusk and night brings men seeking anonymous sex. The artist buried himself to the waist and strung a noose, hanging from a nearby tree, around his neck – loosely, as if the rope had been too long and he’d struck the ground instead of dying. He blew up as many white balloons as he could, leaving them to fan out into the existing litter like inflated condoms. To the congruence of these marginalized, even persecuted, communities, Esparza adds his own body, his own identity as artist. Listed among the materials for STILL is ‘artist’s breath’.

Rafa Esparza, Building: A Simulacrum of Power, 2014, performance documentation at the Bowtie Parcel, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Clockshop, Los Angeles; photograph: Dylan Schwartz

Esparza has lately gained institutional attention – not least, his inclusion in the 2016 ‘Made in LA’ biennial at the Hammer Museum and the current 2017 Whitney Biennial – and now performs in white cubes and marbled museums as often as in secluded parks. Yet, he brings the city with him in the form of adobe made from LA soil and river water. For a 2015 performance at the Getty Museum, The Mexika Eagle, Esparza treated the space as an unknown and hostile planet: wearing Azteca loincloth and anklets over a homemade space suit, he ventured around the museum’s plazas on a handful of adobe bricks, never once setting foot on its famous white travertine. The work was not an outright rejection of the space, or of (white, Western) institutional priorities, but a contextualization – layering the hubris of one culture with the pride of another. Again, this is often direct: for I Have Never Been Here Before (2015), at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Esparza constructed an oblong adobe wall, lining much of the white gallery space with brown bricks and rounding-out its corners. In Tierra, his installation for ‘Made in LA’, he tiled a section of the museum’s mezzanine with bricks made with dirt from Chavez Ravine, a formerly working-class section of Elysian Park razed to make way for Dodger Stadium. Additional objects, like a tattered armchair of the sort you might see on an LA curbside, had been temporarily buried in the park. Esparza doesn’t try to undo so-called progress, but rather decks that urbanism with the symbols of what it paved over.

Rafa Esparza, Tierra, 2016, adobe bricks, found objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Brian Forrest

Esparza’s work may seem anti-development, anti-urban or even anti-modern – and it is, insofar as development would often seek to have you forget what came before. In his practice, marginal sites become contested ones. The resurrected armchair, first shown in the Hammer installation, later reappeared impaled on a giant rebar serpent as part of A Post-Industrial Snake (2016), a collaboration with Timo Fahler for Los Angeles gallery Club Pro (and later reprised for Art Los Angeles Contemporary). With construction lamps tipping the tail as its rattle and a fanged head rearing in the gallery’s furthest room, segments of the snake appeared to move in and out of the walls, among pieces by Fahler and stacks of Esparza’s adobe bricks. The rattlesnake combines the national symbolism of Mexico with a predatory re/deconstruction of developers; in a space that, like Club Pro, marks downtown LA’s transition from downmarket to upscale, the sculpture is both venomous and visionary.

Now, the city that paved its river wants it back. The tents near Bowtie, and maybe Bowtie itself, will one day make way for riverfront condos. Meanwhile, last night’s rain has left the river’s tall clumps of reeds full of tattered plastic. Near the shipping container and mounds of mud that serve as Esparza’s outdoor studio sit row after row of adobe bricks, soggy and eroded. Beneath them is the asphalt of the old railyard and, below that, is more soil. Yet, simply by the act of making the bricks with his father, brothers and sisters, Esparza has re-inscribed the post-industrial Bowtie parcel as a gathering place – whether or not the bricks go on to cover an obelisk. At the conclusion of Building: A Simulacrum of Power, Esparza puts a business suit and tie over his jockstrap, but leaves the pheasant feathers trailing down his back. He cleanses the obelisk’s tip with burning sage. It has been overlaid.

Rafa Esparza lives and works in Los Angeles, USA. In 2016, his work was included in exhibitions at Club Pro, Los Angeles, Participant, New York, USA, and ‘Made in L.A.’ at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. His work is currently included in the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until 11 June. 

Rafa Esparza, Building: A Simulacrum of Power, 2014, performance documentation at Bowtie Parcel, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Clcokshop, Los Angeles; photograph: Dylan Schwartz

Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant.