Rafa Esparza. “tierra” (2016).

Rafa Esparza’s “tierra” (2016), installation view in ‘Made in L.A. 2016’ at the Hammer Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — “You don’t know what work is.” That’s the last line of a poem by Philip Levine that immediately comes to mind when I wind my way through the Made in L.A. 2016 exhibition at the Hammer Museum and arrive at the final piece I encounter during my visit. The poem is ultimately about the speaker’s challenge to the reader to find a deeper empathy, even kinship with one’s family in the struggle to work enough to eat, but more importantly to make space and time for the real vocation, the art one is devoted to, even if it’s only appreciated by a handful of people. The speaker believes — and after the poem I have to believe too — that seeing the effects of hard labor, the dirt and weariness of his brother working the night shift at a Cadillac factory, and understanding that he goes through this to learn to sing opera, he can express a love for that brother he couldn’t give voice to before. Share the struggle and we can share its epiphanies. This is why my favorite work in the exhibition is Rafa Esparza’s “Tierra” (2016), a long field of 1,400 adobe bricks, dotted with spare and specific touches that denote human settlement.

On the bricks, there is a rural mailbox cylinder, lacking the wooden post that is typically underneath it. There is a patterned, upholstered easy chair, but it has a cactus stuck in the middle of it — a very peculiar amalgamation of the natural and the manufactured that is illustrative of the tensions “Tierra” evokes with the very placement of these bricks in the museum. There is also a large monitor with a chair, seemingly inviting the viewer to walk onto the bricks and seat oneself, as if the piece could be one’s own theater. I am asked to imagine a residence, yet can’t help but recognize that in this great, windowed box of art, I am not at all at home.

mas gestos y mas caras with Yann Novak and Robert Crouch. 2016 at @hammer_museum. Photo by Chris Wormald

A photo posted by rafa (@elrafaesparza) on

Esparza had buried these objects in Elysian Field months before, and they were unearthed by peers the artist had invited to participate. The dirt to make the bricks was taken from the same area, the Chavez Ravine, where a thriving Mexican-American neighborhood was bulldozed to allow the construction of Dodger Stadium (another gazing arena, like the museum). The revelation is that the work is about being un-homed. It is about love, but a love that’s broken and battered and bulldozed. Still, against these privations, labor is the artist’s sincere and committed response. Esparza went to work forming the bricks with the help of his family. It was hard, intense labor that went into reconstructing perhaps not a home, but a kind of contingent dwelling place. And that is what I found when I happened upon it.

Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Westwood, LA) through August 28.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...