Esteban Cabeza de Baca is an artist born out of liminality and rhizomatic hybridity, whose history can be expressed as histories and existence as existences. His Mexican and Native lineage can be traced back to the pre-Columbian era as well as the Coronado Expedition, particularly to the Spanish conquistador Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca who landed near Tampa, in 1528 before crossing the Gulf and traveling through Texas, Mexico, and into what is now New Mexico. He was named after Esteban de Dorantes, an enslaved West African—the first non-native to reach the southern part of the Colorado Plateau—who wandered the Southwest with slaveowner Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, with Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Baca was raised in the border town of San Ysidro, California, the sister city of Tijuana, by a historian father and union-organizing mother. He studied painting at Cooper Union and counts the New York School of painting among his influences (along with Charline von Heyl, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Philip Guston, and many others). Since then, his practice has expanded to include sculpture, ceramics, installation, and communal engagement in a way that embraces political, historical, ecological issues that are prescient and deeply thoughtful.
I first met Esteban at a chance meeting during his exhibition Worlds Without Borders at Boers-Li Gallery in New York, 2019. We passed one another in the hallway, where I introduced myself. We sat down in the gallery and immediately connected. Since then, we have had an ongoing conversation about his work and life. The following conversation occurred in two parts on the occasion of Let Earth Breathe at the Momentary, Crystal Bridges Museum. We caught up about our love for New Mexico, the trajectory of his work, and his approach to art making as a “method to reinvigorate ideology in the Americas before 1492.”
Colin Edgington (Rail): Hey Esteban, it’s great to see you. When are you going to New Mexico?
Esteban Cabeza de Baca: I’m going this summer to do some painting in the northern part of the state and visit my family that I haven’t seen since 2020. It’ll be great to unite everybody down in New Mexico, and because I think it was hard on everybody with COVID, not being able to see them. It’ll be a good chance to reunite.
Rail: Yeah, likewise, I have not been there since pre-COVID times. So we’re trying to get out there. Somehow. You know, we share a love for New Mexico, which is where I grew up, and you spend a good amount of time there. You also have a long tied history to it. How does the layering, the peeling process, and physicalness lend itself to or connect to the nonlinear perspective of space, time, place, geography that you utilize in your practice—you know, all those things that your work connects to?
Cabeza de Baca: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think my dad is the answer. I remember, there were so many road trips growing up where we drove from San Diego to New Mexico, and I’d be bored to tears, but it also cemented an expansive vision of space in my young mind. Just seeing the landscape unroll, as you go from San Diego to New Mexico, the temporality in New Mexico, unlike in other spaces in the Southwest, where a serenity opens beyond human scale. It’s so different from Tijuana’s semi-liminal spaces that I grew up in along the border. But it offers a grander vision than what I’m used to in the city. It also helps me connect back to my roots. Now going back to New Mexico helps me gain a deeper appreciation for slowing down that I think is really essential to my artistic process—how do we slow down viewership? How do we slow down consumption? And how do we get people to be more thoughtful about the way we tell stories and tap the brakes on this ravenous consumerist notion of how to make? And I think going back to New Mexico and being with my family there, but then also the community of artists that I’m becoming more and more a part of in the Southwest, has helped me maintain that outlook. I’m interested in how we can change the historical trajectory of how we see the American landscape into a more thoughtful way.
Rail: Yes, I can identify with all that you’ve said here, it feels natural to me. When I first saw your show at Boers-Li Gallery. I might have told you this before, but I felt that I’d entered the presence of New Mexico. Meaning, not the state as a national boundary, but the place as geography in all its beauty. New Mexico is such a dynamic place historically, and culturally, I felt it was all there. The energy that was there, I felt, was meditative. Right? That slowness and quietude, that expansiveness, but also there was a resistance to the work. I’m thinking specifically about Tsankawi (2018), one of the paintings I wrote on for that first review in the Brooklyn Rail, which sort of epitomizes that compounded history. Tsankawi was built by ancestral Puebloans in North Central New Mexico. And today it is part of the Bandelier National Monument. There are cave dwellings there, petroglyphs, village ruins, ancient paths, all these things. And the painting, you know, I see this sort of layered contemporariness: the now. That sense of plywood that appears to be spray-painted, it’s a rampant motif out there. And that, mixed with the landscape and abstractions —which reveal the black and electric, bright orange, and which I think I referenced as suggesting the bowels of the earth, like the beginning of something. So that multi-layeredness, which you have already mentioned, that multi-temporal approach, I find to be wonderful, and radical in many ways, as far as an approach to art making. There’s the painterly, physical aspect of how you would peel layers back. But it’s also a physical act that you’re doing, which in some way draws or connects to Abstract Expressionists, and actually other paintings that you’ve made, like cutting into the canvas too? Can you speak to the layering, the peeling process, and how that lends itself to the nonlinear perspective, or how it connects? Or nonlinear perspective of space, time, place, geography—all those things that your work connects to?
Cabeza de Baca: Yeah, thank you. I feel like the discussion we’ve had over the last few years is generous, because you’re from New Mexico, and you understand, as opposed to somebody who’s not from there. I appreciate that. And there’s a history that’s been stolen from me because of colonization. It forces a question: how do I piece together my very complicated history of being? Some of my people came as migrants, marrying into indigenous societies and protecting them, and fighting for their rights. And then also the indigenous part of my ancestry from my mom’s father and trying to unpack his ancestry that he had to hide because of the caste system in Mexico, but then also that erasure that was compounded by crossing the border into the US. Painting is a retrieval device for going out, going to sites of my paternal ancestry in New Mexico, and to sites of my maternal family line along the border and listening to the land. And there’s this feeling, too, that when you’re out there you sharpen and hone in your instincts as a visual thinker differently than you can in the city. How can you start to watch and slow down your calibration to ecosystems and watch the relations that are going on between species? And how can that inform the way that we tell stories differently away from these individuated, triumphant hero narratives to be more intertwined? And I think for me, going to Pueblo sites, who were having complex trade relationships with indigenous tribes that would go down into Mexico and vice versa. So there was like this cross conversation going on before borders were in place. So one part of what I want to do with my paintings is reactivate those ancient pilgrimage paths severed by the US colonial project. I want to reinvigorate the stories from my past and revitalize these conversations between Indigenous nations by going to these sites (where ancient American Land art and ancient painting from an American point of view began) and the through-lines on those connections points to where I’m at now in New York. And I think then being a product of the New York School of painters—you know, I went to Cooper Union, and having that education of painting being something like an event that’s specific to the canvas, that something there needs to be enacted in this alchemical, magical, site-specific event that happens on the canvas, that the hand is evident—especially now that I think that’s very important in the age of automation—but also, that freedom of movement is employed as well too. I’m thinking about painters like Jack Whitten that were thinking about how math and science could inform his way of making paintings. And when I go to a lot of these sites, too, I’m thinking of them as almost, like, ancient ocular telescopes for societies to think about how to see. And then, I’m also thinking about painters like Joan Mitchell, who’s a fabulous, fabulous painter also from the New York school. I think differently about how to feel landscapes rather than to directly possess it.
Rail: Yeah, I think that connection is very potent in your work. And you’re one of the few contemporary painters, at least in my opinion, who has such compounded worlds (plural!) coming through you to the canvas, and your work is incredibly rich because of that. One of the things I was thinking about, and this could be from growing up in New Mexico while others may not see it as readily apparent, but I think it comes through the work pretty clearly is that your work lends itself to a resistance to the colonial perspective and against a certain type of Western thought. In many ways, you’re kind of enacting a détournement. You’re using some of those tools, too, to sort of flip them on their head, to re-engage with that language. And in the same way that a lot of artists and poets and writers have taken language—and what I mean is not just spoken word, or written word, but visual language—and readopted that so when I saw some of the work where you would cut in, or you would attach things to it, I can’t remember the title of the piece, but there’s a white bandana with black paisley that is such an iconic element, especially of Chicano culture, you know—to me, it always brings me back to cholos—and then in some works you cut open the canvases and let the bones show. In some sense it reminds me of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and of course Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who’s been a big influence on you as well, correct?
Cabeza de Baca: I definitely feel that resistance to colonial narratives, but in other moments of being inside of them, how to use it to your advantage too. You know, I have thought about artists like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and the ways in which she has either used the maps as an aerial view of restoring or repopulating the unceded territories of Indigenous nations back on to the United States and giving that precedence. And even back to people like William Burroughs or Basquiat where they would take on those strategies of surrealism in slicing textuality, and they would splice language together, and then try and find relationships that are at once disparate, but through that juxtapositions occur that can be built out, and so on. The way that I interpret it is as visual or historical alliances. That’s really what I want my project to be, is to, within my process, build out a first dimension of painting, where I’m trying to imagine what America looked like before colonization, to the next two layers that are kind of in the midst of the colonial project to a fourth dimension or fourth layer that reaches toward something postcolonial and imagining a hopeful narrative out of it. It’s like how can I, by bringing out not only a spatial temporal rift towards history, that could be more complex about how we think about time, and thinking that maybe, if we start looking towards science, and how they depict quantum reality, quantum mechanics, but then also the theory of relativity and how, you know, from the big to the small moments, how that can be so inspiring and get us to think forward with the way that painting could drip and act and relate and build stories together. Because building those conversations between disparate fields or disparate ideas of progress is actually the only way we’re really going to move forward. So for me, it’s like, how can I find disparate stories that are actually all trying to leap towards advancing culture in a way?
Rail: I love this idea of visual historical alliances. I’m thinking about how you connect and broaden your practice consistently—how you aren’t necessarily focused on the preciousness of style. You’ve always embraced new elements in your practice and tried different things. One of the things I was taken with when I first saw your work was the sculptural, painterly, and found elements all intermixed and juxtaposed. You know, like, water cartons which infer the migrants that cross the US-Mexico border and those that illegally yet necessarily aid them. And a good portion of the sculptural work pulls from the reddened earth tone that is found in the Southwest. These things have a visceral quality that ties the viewer to these places in a way that feels very direct, and you and the work are the channels. The first sculptures I saw of yours—such as Earth Chant (2017) and Jornada Morolla (2019)—were laden with fingerprints, hand marks and impressions that exist in a way that makes the work feel almost as if it was hardening as you were making it. It’s—you know, I would almost call it a photograph, in a sense, thinking about the way it captures time. Or, you know, like painting, the remnants of an act that have passed, but are still very much alive and present. So thinking of those alliances, the past and the present exist simultaneously. You are not adverse to a clear physicalness in your work. What drives that impulse?
Cabeza de Baca: For a long time I’ve been interested in what it means to paint on rocks, or paint with rocks, and have the paint carry the subject matter and self-reflexivity of it, talking about its own materiality. I think good art should be doing that, where you’re not just painting something that has no multilingual or multi-interpretive function to it. And maybe this is a trope of modernism, but I think it’s also just a sign of good art that it should be talking about its own material conditions. And I think, for me, it’s not only thinking about our relationship to how we consume, but also the history of the land. But it’s got to be interesting. It’s got to be cool, you know, not only for me to feel alive and present, but to an audience member from any background. And sometimes I wonder if I’m a maker who believes that only the present temporal structure matters, that the now-ness is the way that you can affect real change. Even if we feel like we’re stuck in the past, or that the past has more of a hold on where we’re going, or if we really want to go into the future, it’s like, how can we activate people to now. Like these sculptures that you’re talking about, I make them from earth that’s from New Mexico, that’s also mixed with porcelain clay and it’s fired at a certain bake schedule. But I think tying this back to that idea of New York School painting, where it has to feel like an event that’s site specific yet happened in the past. It’s like, even though I did it, at that moment, it still has to feel alive now. And I think what I want my painting to do is to get people to renegotiate their thoughts about now, and to not think of their own life as being rigid, but that they have many possibilities, different strings, and strings have dimensions that they could choose and pluck from. That they don’t have to live a fixed course. I would sometimes argue that if you are very connected to the now-ness of where we are going, you can change your plot line or your through line or your destiny. So for me, that’s really where I kind of want to go with what I make, connecting us back to where we come from, but where we get to go as well.
Rail: Yes, that kind of fixity of the cosmos is unchangeable, in one sense, but the way that we navigate life is malleable or shiftable. And thinking of the past too, it always cycles back to the now anyway. And sometimes it’s not conscious, but it’s lingering there. But that is also how we connect to the present and the future. I think a lot of your work shows that. It goes back, comes forward, it moves in different directions and jumps among different planes, and I think that’s what gives it the feeling of being alive. So, the hand marks conjure up an image of you making the thing. And their indexicality is a part of that, as opposed to some modernists that were making objects as industrial and sleek as possible, you know, erasing human presence. And so your work is very much humanistic in that sense. But your sculptures are multi-layered as well. They are not Giacometti, where the marks encompass the work all around. So those pieces I mentioned are flat on one side, and then they come down into a smooth curve. And they have bricks that go around them, which speaks to their materiality. And it does tie back to your paintings too. I was looking at some of your newer work, the painting La Llamada de la familia (2021), it has that familiar sage and reddish-tan colored landscape that we love. But you know, there are things sort of floating in space. There are plants growing out of pots, there’s a flowering cactus. And there is a rhizome system of roots. So thinking of family and place, and also that aliveness and the presence, you know, the way that you’ve painted, they feel very much like the New York School. Some of those marks and those repeating circles, at the top, they immediately reminded me of barbed wire. And this circular motif—the spiral or journey—can be found throughout your oeuvre, with La Llamada and also Sowing Seeds for Spring (2020) which was in your last show at Garth Greenan. To me, these motifs connect to the idea of roots and genealogy that we’ve talked about in the past. But also the cosmos, like drawing, you know, between stars and creating images out of distant balls of gas, from our perspective and petroglyphs too. In your new show, Let Earth Breathe at The Momentary, Crystal Bridges Museum, you are going to show large paintings such as Beaver Moon (2022) which is around eighteen feet long. You haven’t had paintings that big in a gallery before. So, in addition to your first museum show, this is ripe with markers for you. I mentioned how I see your practice as radical in many ways and that you’re always bringing new elements into your practice. You have this new painting titled Let Earth Breathe (2022), the titular title of the show, that uses cochineal dye. It is so very different from the style that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing that I thought, “is this really Esto?” The work feels lighter and more airy. You mentioned to me that you were practicing restraint with this work. I think this speaks to everything that we’ve been talking about—bringing in these different processes or techniques, when you know, many artists refuse to deviate from their style if it is working. But you are willing to deviate, to experiment, and to dig. Can you speak to that impulse?
Cabeza de Baca: That’s a really good question. I think for me, it’s about getting closer to the same subject matter of New Mexico and my past and that history that’s been taken from me and unlearning certain parts of the New York School in order to get closer to the way stories are told through artesanias in Mexico. There’s this whole history of cochineal dying throughout Mexico, certain growers would have a relationship with Nopal cacti, where the cochineal beetle would grow and creating dyes and methods off of that that are in one way less exploitive than the petro-acrylic industrial process. So for me, I’m getting closer to my subject matter and asking: what’s better for the subject? For this show, I was talking with the curator, Kaitlin Garcia-Maestas, and my partner Heidi Howard about how to really expand out from the canvas to a large-scale installation. And breaking down the border between disciplines, high and low, inside and outside, between city and rural spaces. Because with some of these paintings I did, like Beaver Moon, it started out where I would go to Colorado and make the painting, initially in phases, out in the Garden of the Gods, which is the unceded territory of the Apache, Cheyenne and Ute tribe. And thinking about looking at that space and being there with my family, and just painting. But then obviously with time constraints, I wasn’t able to really fully realize my vision. And then bring that into conversation with my process of working in New York elicited another question: how can I break down the way that we see the way we live in urban spaces, which itself isn’t sustainable and needs to change? And how can painting lead us to think differently about the way we model space going forward into the future? And to an outsider, it might seem like it’s all different, but to me, it feels like it’s all part of the same project. And trying out different materials, like bronze for this show, is important. It was really exciting collaborating with UAP foundry and my gallery, Garth Greenan, who made this all possible in addition to the Momentary. To think, instead of just putting a static object that takes up space and covers up the land, how could we make something that holds space for kin from other species? And to then reintroduce native plant species back into this industrial, former chemical factory that’s now a museum. And to take over and to collaborate with a foundry, but then also collaborate with the garden staff at the museum, has been really fun and really fantastic. And it’s always been in the back of my mind. And, you know, Heidi is really good at growing things. And one of the things that had been always developing within my installations that we collaborate on, has been: How can we give this multi-species revitalization narrative more space? And so with conversations together, we’ve kind of brought it to different institutions and thought about it. And this has been the first time that I feel like, now, it’s starting to unfold in really interesting ways. And I think, my process, you know, to go back to that idea of a circle, it’s like, then I paint it back into my paintings, you know. I build an installation, but then I think about, okay, you know, going to Giacometti, Giacometti would paint paintings of his sculptures. For me, to bring it back home to painting, and then, from an observational point of view that is entwined with my en plein air process, how do I look at these sculptures, paint it back in, and think of different possibilities or different dimensions of space and storylines that these sculptures, which are locked into gravity, have? I want to repeatedly give it a new life and start to build stories that keep going and thinking through.
Rail: The sculpture, which we spoke about in another conversation, is so wonderful. Does it have a title yet?
Cabeza de Baca: I was thinking, it’s called “Hosts.” It could be like a host for other organisms to kind of come out of. I was inspired by an Escuintla ancient Mayan figurine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that’s miniature. So, in some ways, I like to recreate sculptures that are locked up in institutions and repatriate them to access ancient knowledge so as to help us in times of trouble, like global warming, and think maybe some of these ancient pieces of art actually have knowledge inside of them that we can unlock for practical utilizations.
Rail: That is the small-seated host figurine, which has a chest plate and arms that detach, revealing another figurine inside. But your piece is human scale, right? Or is it larger?
Cabeza de Baca: It is a little larger than human scale.
Rail: And it’s a single figure that’s been separated, and you’ve built in these sort-of channels in the back to grow, as you said, organisms and plants. And so this is kind of an unmasking (sorry for the pun), and it’s symbolic to the whole enterprise of your process. I’m interested—is this the first piece you’ve made in bronze?
Cabeza de Baca: Of this scale, yes. I mean, when I was younger, I did lost wax in high school. But it was small, little things.
Rail: So, what made you want to make a piece of bronze?
Cabeza de Baca: Well, I think initially, honestly, we went to check out the space at the museum with Kaitlin and Heidi. And I came in wanting to jackhammer a hole through the museum wall where I could build out a spider web-like armature that would host plants and stuff like that. But they obviously, for good reasons, thought that was unrealistic. So then, you know, Heidi was like, just dream big, you know, think big, Esto.
Rail: [Laughs] Absolutely.
Cabeza de Baca: So then we started to walk outside, and we’re looking at this one space, and I just automatically thought of the seated figure being out there, and started to imagine what if these plants were inside of that. And this was after Kaitlin and Heidi were talking about bronze, you know. I think also, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was working on some bronzes at my gallery, too, which looked really, really cool. So I was like, why not try it out? You know?
Rail: I’m happy you did!
Cabeza de Baca: And the process is actually very similar to painting, where you’re working with liquid and putting it on and evidencing your fingerprints on that touch onto the surface. And having this conversation between making a painting of the sculpture as it’s being made, but then also having it evidenced in the way that I’m building out the sculpture. So then I had to ask: how much drainage would be available for the soil? How much light is it going to get? You know, it’s going to heat up and retain heat during the really hot months of summer in Bentonville, Arkansas. And the residual heat at night will fight the evening frost. The sculpture is going to be an ongoing collaboration with nature that’s changing the patina of the metal. And the work could be site specific anywhere. And I think talking with Heidi, who’s done installations with her mom, Liz Phillips, a pioneer in sound installations, has me thinking: How can art be interactive with people? How can it activate a space? And I think, how can it do that with native plants and calling out the history of that land, which has always been really, really interesting for me. So that’s kind of where I’m taking it. And the museum got really excited to the point now where they’re like, how can we really make more plants take over that space? So it’s really exciting going forward.
Rail: Yes, I love the idea of calling out the history of the land through plants, forcing your audience to rethink our place in that space that is the exhibition and site of land. One of the things I was going to mention was that bronze provides that gravity that you’re speaking about, but it also looks almost like wet mud, tying it back to the earth. It lets you sort of tap into another element of the spatial-temporal realm that you’re working in, there is that weightedness to the metal that will be offset by the lightness of plant life. One of the things that really excited me about the show is that you’re going to have a seed bank. One of my favorite artists is Félix González-Torres. And I think when you told me that I thought it clicked that it’s so very much a part of everything that you’re doing, and it instantly reminded me of the way in which González-Torres brought the viewer directly into contact with the piece you know, his candy pieces and stacks, where one takes something away. In that gesture, he was able to undermine the entirety of the institution and its power structures and also the capitalist hold on art, you know galleries and auction houses, the whole market of them. Instead, the idea spreads outward and the material object fades away. I feel like you’re doing something similar, right? That there’s this anti-colonial and anti-capitalist gesture that, in a sense, is pure humanism and also ecological. It is active; that people take something away, and that they may put it in the ground, or, you know, harbor it as a piece of art, or whatever. Maybe they grow it and return some of that nativeness to the ground. And so, yeah, I thought that gesture was brilliant and exciting. I mean, we’ve kind of covered this, but the community engagement, the live plants, and particularly the seed bank… you allow people to come in, pull something and walk out with it. In a museum, that’s still a radical idea. And that your paintings and sculptures will be taken away too, in a way that is phenomenological and experiential.
Cabeza de Baca: Yeah, I’ve kind of wanted to do this over the last two years of building. You know, just giving something away to people that they could take from a rarefied space. And then have it be something that keeps going and keeps fertilizing. Or people just find their own relationship to plants—I guess, the way that I think about it is like, how can we keep these conversations on an individual level where people build their own relationships with plants? And how can we create engagements with the community that begins with painting, but extends out from there into workshops. One of the things we’re going to be doing is a snake pot workshop that Heidi and I will be running. Heidi’s been developing this pot design over the last few years, and we’re going to use it to teach people to build their own relationships with plants and to have that be a really active part of how people think about plants. I think for me, it’s like, how can I just let this project go out from painting and not stop it, and to listen to my intuition on how far it can go. But then also, how can that extend into other institutions and other ways of thinking? Yeah, I’m excited about exploring and seeing where all of this can go.
Rail: I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful idea. I have one last question? Can you send me a packet of seeds?
Cabeza de Baca: [Laughs] Yeah, what’s great too is that, we worked with Clay Bakker at Crystal Bridges to make sure that they’re not Monsanto, and that they’re all either pollinator species or medicinal, like echinacea, or that they grow well in that specific space. And the cool thing about this project is that it is adaptable to different places, and it could be attuned to the differences of geography and location. It’s not just a one-size-fits-all type of art making. And that’s something that is galvanizing the future of my work: How can it come out of just an object-oriented ontology, and lean more towards relationships of people, environments, critters, biology, and feelings? This is a way of thinking that isn’t always acknowledged by Western notions of philosophy; that feeling, that looking at plants, and almost like the ways of working that Robin Wall Kimmerer, the Potawatomi botanist talks about with Braiding Sweetgrass, that we like to teach. I want others to build their own relationship with plants that they feel with it. This is an attunement that I hope carries forward with this show and to where my work goes into the future.