LOS ANGELES — Poking out of the piles of sequins, sewing supplies, sketchbooks, and trinkets in Rafa Esparza’s collaborative exhibition de la Calle at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Los Angeles is a note that sums up the project’s intimate, communal innovation: “USE ME xx.” The scribbled words are bound by a heart on a plastic bag stuffed with pink scraps of fabric, encouraging fellow artists — and viewers — to experiment with and participate in this quite personal project.
Esparza, along with local artists and queer nightlife personalities Victor Barragán, Ubaldo Boido, Josh Castillo, Amina Cruz, Travis Dee, Fabian Guerrero, Anthony (Taco) Guillen, Sebastian Hernandez, Young Joon Kwak, Dorian Ulises Lopez, Tanya Melendez, Bashir Naim, Olima, Noé Olivas, Leather Papi (Gabriela Ruiz), and Kiki Xtravaganza have been in residence at the ICA since April, persistently making art and garments that debuted in a la Calle, a performance on Saturday, June 16 that made Santee Alley in the Los Angeles Fashion District its catwalk.
de la Calle and a la Calle are open-ended and hard to write about; organized by curator Jamillah James, the exhibition and performance brim with an energy that doesn’t feel like capital A “art,” and that’s a good thing. a la Calle was not publicized and its time and location spread only by word of mouth, meaning it was expressly not for an art audience but rather for the working-class Latinx community gathered there. Vendors had front-row seats as Kiki Xtravaganza strutted the streets with a vacuum in a translucent rainbow dress, and Sebastian Hernandez dropped it low with shoppers and coyly served Mexican pastries from a silver platter. The performers in a la Calle proudly reaffirmed the bold risk of embracing one’s identity, and honored the grind of honest, immigrant labor. Esparza, wearing an orange hoodie stitched with a wreath of squirming mechanical puppies, casually stopped mid-performance at the Alley Dog for some Tajín-sprinkled mangoes.
At the ICA, the entrance to de la Calle is marked by gold streamers that gently billow and rustle among themselves. The project is refreshing in how it changes over time, the ideas and textures and bright colors in different garments ricocheting off and influencing one another. A carefully shaded ballpoint pen drawing by Esparza of a young Chicano man sucking his two big toes has been blown up and printed on a T-shirt by Barragán’s self-titled label BARRAGÁN — the details now clear and raw. The boy’s gelled, closely cropped hair is rendered in a dotted fade, and a thin chain disappears into the gap behind his crossed leg and lowered head. Most of the drawing is negative space and light contouring, fitting for a boy absorbed in his own ethereal, erotic bliss. Esparza’s drawing on Barragán’s shirt showcases the tender charm of collaboration and brings a deeply personal art into the streets, just as Esparza’s brown sequined Pro Club basketball shorts cast the clothing and people of the streets in a sparkling elegance.
de la Calle continues Esparza’s practice of critiquing and, in his words, “browning the white cube” with immigrant bodies, labor, and art typically excluded from its too-clean sanctity. At the ICA and in previous projects at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Ballroom Marfa, Esparza has worked with family and friends to layer the space with adobe bricks; here, mud panels painted pink, green, teal, and brown also hang on the wall as curved backdrops to brown creativity. Esparza and his collaborators’ carefully interlocked bricks visualize America’s reliance on an immigrant working-class that knows how to make opportunity from what it has; leftover streaks of mud on the gallery walls remind viewers not to forget who cleans up, either.
In de la Calle, garments sit on mannequins, charged with a residue of their performance and shot through with an unabashed, restless confidence. The narratives of people of color, religious minorities, immigrants, and LGBTQ people sing through and are presented as art — as they always should be — in de la Calle. Other museums, take note. A three-piece, plastic garment by Anthony (Taco) Guillen alternates in electric green and hot magenta sections, its flaunting, triangular top crossed by a silver chain — when Guillen wore it in a la Calle, the result was functional but futuristic, bold but serious. A bright blue scaffold on wheels, used as an impromptu platform during the performance, is parked next to several big checkered shopping bags by Melendez, like the kind your grandmother uses, that proclaim “Support Independent Womxn of Color Entrepreneurs.” Mighty, mythological birds by Esparza are cut from leather strips and the zags of outsoles of Nike sneakers. After the a la Calle performance, Esparza created a new ballpoint pen drawing, “In bed with Cortez,” of two pairs of entangled legs, jeans baggy around their calves, lying in bed. But their shoes are still on; whether friends, lovers or something in between, their shared, close affection — anonymous to us, but known to them — couldn’t wait. Hopefully this drawing, too, will make its way out of the frame.
Exiting de la Calle, I noticed several strands of gold streamers caught on one of Barragán’s kitten heel shoes, caked in tan-painted spray foam and plaster reminiscent of the earth, its shell slowly falling to pieces. Handmade and hand-shaped, the shoe both reminds viewers of its valiant dance in a la Calle, and sits ready to be resculpted and reconstituted. Because de la Calle, and all the stories within it, don’t strive toward neat resolutions and conclusions; rather, they are open to the possibility of renewal. The project embraces a relentless malleability and risk-taking that is familiar to immigrant communities in the United States, because sometimes the self has to riff as it resists. de la Calle declares that art can be off the wall and in the streets; or, perhaps even better, that the streets — and the people in them — can be in the gallery and celebrated.
Rafa Esparza: de la Calle continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Los Angeles (1717 E 7th St, Los Angeles) through July 15.