The Los Angeles River is largely a brutalist slab of concrete, but there's a stretch near Atwater Village that feels almost alive. Framed by the stark gray channel, trees sprout from the water, Canadian geese skronk and swim in the stream and, in the background, the hum of the freeway almost sounds like ocean waves crashing, punctuated by the howls of passing trains. Here, in this uncanny marriage of urban expanse and constrained wildness, artist Rafa Esparza watches the rushing rapids, still swollen from recent rains. “This is a special place,” he says, as the sun begins to set behind the mountains and power lines.

At the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Los Angeles rivers, just a few miles away, our city first put down its roots, as indigenous communities settled on the banks. And it's here on the river's edge that Esparza laid the groundwork for his latest body of work.

The born-and-raised Angeleno has been known for his often politically charged, queer performance art, which often pushes his body to extremes. He's inserted hooks into his chest as an homage to Aztec sun dancers; half-buried himself with a noose around his neck at Elysian Park's gay cruising spots; and on a street corner across from downtown's prison, submerged his body in wet concrete and had to chisel himself out after it dried. In response to officer-involved shootings in 2015, Esparza's performance Red Summer involved him walking nearby the Police Academy firing range with a sequined target on his back. Over the course of 12 hours, whenever a shot resounded in Elysian Valley, he fell to the ground.

But lately his visual art has become more organic while maintaining its subtly confrontational approach. Earlier this year, Esparza made a huge impact at New York City's esteemed Whitney Biennial with his installation Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field, a large adobe structure made from Elysian Park dirt. Within the white walls of the gallery space, Esparza created his own museum for marginalized communities, featuring works by artists excluded from the Whitney's exhibition, including a volcanic rock sculpture by L.A. artist Beatriz Cortez, photographs from Dorian Ulises López Macías' Mexicanos series and a golden fresco by Eamon Ore-Giron.

“I saw seashells and earth

“When I was thinking of working with adobe, I was thinking of working with a material that was inherently brown that could be used to build a space and reflect the color of bodies not usually represented in traditional art spaces. It's a material that can speak to local geographies of the West and Mexico, and also layered with personal history of labor.”

New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz noted the political nature of Esparza's Whitney work, noting that photos humanized the subjects, showing “portraits of exactly the sort of so-called 'Mexican rapists' and brown youth that Trump supporters rail against.”

Esparza's work with adobe has been exhibited locally at the Hammer Museum's “Made in L.A.” exhibition, as well as Hollywood's LACE gallery, where he created a building inside a building using 5,000 bricks. But it all started here by the river.

Rafa Esparza stands in the L.A. River, holding a vintage photo of Mexican guest workers being sprayed with pesticides before coming into U.S.; Credit: Danny Liao

Rafa Esparza stands in the L.A. River, holding a vintage photo of Mexican guest workers being sprayed with pesticides before coming into U.S.; Credit: Danny Liao

In 2014, arts organization Clockshop collaborated with artist Michael Parker to dig a 137-foot, sidelong obelisk into the neglected asphalt expanse, like an impotent Washington Monument. The giant shape became a site for performances and art installations, redefining the space from its environmentally strained yard — which had been purchased by California State Parks yet lay dormant — into a stage for creativity. Esparza had been invited to perform there, and his first visit sparked the idea of working with earth. “I remember seeing a lot of the sediment built up under the gravel,” he says. “I saw seashells and earth, and it took me back to imagining what the river looked like before the cement banking.”

To return the space to its more elemental form, Esparza covered the obelisk with adobe bricks he made with his father, who had once built an adobe home in Durango, Mexico. “It was important to have my father lead this production. Knowing how he sourced the material from his surroundings, we used water from the L.A. River, returning it to being a natural resource.”

Yet for Esparza, the bricks weren't just building materials; they're political symbols, too. “L.A. has a history of adobe brick-making; our missions were made from them, with slave labor. Brown labor and brown bodies have often been invisiblized, or not seen as valuable.” Through his projects, Esparza makes “invisible” populations and neglected places visible once again.

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