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Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s paintings at Gaa Gallery layer space and spiral through time.

The New York-based artist spends time in the Southwest, where he often paints from inside caves, as if looking through a portal over miles and across centuries. He claims Mexican and Indigenous heritage and traces his family back to Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who lived among Indigenous tribes along the Mexican border in the early 17th century, working as a faith healer.

As Cabeza de Baca wrestles with conquest and colonialism, his paintings evoke the persistence of Indigenous cultures.

Survivance takes its title from a term coined by Anishinaabe writer and critic Gerald Vizenor referring to Native peoples’ re-inscription of their stories over the erasure created by longstanding colonialist destruction.

In the painting, a head hovers large in the air over a spindly bison against a red-earth landscape. Both are half there, at once vanishing and appearing, ragged and under tremendous strain. Great black loops circle the bison, containing the animal in a sacred space. It’s a searing, tender piece.

Often, Cabeza de Baca lays down a landscape, masks over portions with a resist, paints on top of that, then strips the masking. One place or time becomes a matrix of two or three. In La Llamada de la familia (The Call of the Family), a circle that had been masked accumulates into a spiral looping across mountains, a vortex of the under-layer — or the earlier time — humming and tightening.

Look through an untitled sculpture — a figure carved from plywood wreathed in spiraling reeds, burlap, and driftwood — and see the painting Espirales del futuro postcolonial (Spirals of the Postcolonial Future), which places us at the mouth of a cave gazing at a green landscape pulsing with another unmasked spiral, this one opening toward us. It pulls like a magnet. Same place, two realities — or more.

Painting over and unmasking is a physical manifestation of survivance: Cabeza de Baca covers early versions with new ones, then peels the resist, and the original image shines through in traces. When time fills space, landscapes can contain memory, pain, and hope.

–Cate McQuaid

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