Rafael Esparza

My work is embedded in questions regarding ritual, identity, memory and land. I attempt to inhabit moments in time inaccessible to me and through performance imagine a space that can reveal potential for a different now, a different future. I was born to Mexican immigrant parents and raised in East Pasadena. I studied at East Los Angeles College, then transferred to UCLA where I received my B.A. in Art. Starting as a painter, drawer and shifting to performance art, sculpture and site-specific installation is a move that’s reflective of the different places I’ve been privileged to navigate as a student and artist. With ties to East LA (a cultural hub where my artistic purpose and political ideas were nurtured) and the lack I see in cross-cultural art discourse, I’m progressively making more work outside of traditional art spaces. Working in places like Elysian Park, (a popular gay cruising site) where I buried the lower half of my body into the ground, tied a noose around my neck and for nearly 2 hours blew into dozens of clear balloons as a meditative gesture on manifest destiny, inspired me to create more work like it. I see my work needing to respond to a site where the people who routinely occupy it (in this case mostly Latinos discreetly looking for anonymous gay sex) become the intended audience for the work. My goal is to continue to work in public to broaden my audience to include communities that often inform my work: lower-working class people, people of color, (coincidentally the same people in L.A. who historically don’t have access to museums and galleries). With this in mind, my work inherently addresses: What audience does the site privilege? How can I cultivate a language that speaks to my critical interests and is also accessible to people that have a varying awareness of art and art production? Vital to my practice is to be able to sustain it in a manner that it continue to yield new interesting questions, room for growth and experimentation.

I am currently working on a large scale public work that began with my family and I in the summer of 2014 titled building: a simulacrum of power. Per invitation by Clockshop, a not-for-profit organization, and California State Parks, I embarked on a month long labor intensive residency with my family and friends at the Bowtie Project: an industrial piece of land sandwiched between the historic Los Angeles River and busy railroad tracks in the heart of a neighborhood dubbed Frogtown. My family, friends and I used water from the Los Angeles River, dirt, horse dung and straw to hand-make over 1500 adobe bricks. The technique was taught to us by my father who built his first house in Durango ,Meixco entirely out of bricks he handmade himself. The bricks were used to pave the surface of an existing artwork by Michael Parker titled The Unfinished, a 137 ft. long obelisk carved into the ground just beside the river. Once paved, I staged a performance around and on top of it using my body, engaging the sun with mirror reflections, deconstructing a Danza Azteca water dance and setting ablaze a collected sage bush from near the site. With power as an overarching theme the work juxtaposed the slave labor of ancient Egypt referenced in The Unfinished, with the collaborative labor force of my family and I. In relation to my interest in creating work that is accessible, the work became a space where my family (a small non-traditional art audience) was engaging with art by actually producing it. It also produced an amassing sense of potential as the production of bricks multiplied throughout the weeks. After nearly 4 months I am returning to the Bowtie to repurpose the adobe bricks. I will be building a two wall structure that will be sealed primed and prepared for painting. The project is titled Con/Safos (With Respect).

For decades graffiti lined the banks of the river for miles on end up until 2007 when successfully the city’s graffiti abatement program displaced the iconic art form and its culture from the river banks that they once claimed as their own. Graffiti remains a prominent feature of a sector at the Bowtie. I’m partnering up with Self Help Graphics and Art, one of Los Angele’s longest standing art organizations that has served the community of East L.A., specializing in printmaking, to invite local graffiti artists as well as other local artist and commission them to create new works on the adobe’d structure. In addition they will be invited to partake in SHGA’s atelier program. SHGA will facilitate serigraph printing workshops that will enable each artist to create a print inspired by their work on Con/Safos. The atelier will culminate in group show of everyone’s print. This collaboration is designed to highlight a history of displacement at the site, support local artists who historically lack organizational/institutional and financial support, create a safe platform for artists to practice, and help them explore options available for them to share their work within and outside of traditional art spaces.

This recent project although not grounded in the performance work I am most known for, is strongly responding to ideas regarding access, land, labor, and memory, which are equally present in all of my work. I seek to continue to create work that can be generative to my own practice, create access, and support other artists within my community.