LOS ANGELES — Since his murder in 1992, the late Mexican singer Chalino Sánchez has become an icon — a self-made first-generation immigrant who popularized the narcocorrido genre with picaresque ballads of a life lived fast, loose, and on the margins. Despite the braggadocio with which he sang about his hardscrabble existence, his music is warm and tender, his nasal caterwaul soaring above the propulsive lilt of the accordion. His portrait on adobe panel, which sits at the center of rafa esparza’s keeping at Commonwealth and Council, embodies the themes of collective history and personal memory that preoccupy the show.  

rafa esparza is most well known for his sun-baked adobe bricks, which he creates by mixing earth, clay, hay, horse dung, and water. Depending on the project, he uses the bricks to build structures, pave floors, or to serve as a platform for other artists. In each instance, the adobe is charged, at once exemplifying indigenous ingenuity while gesturing to the fraught histories of settler colonialism.

rafa esparza, “victory” (2021), acrylic on adobe, approx. 46 x 34 x 1.5 inches

In recent years, esparza has returned to the painting of his earliest art training, using the earthen panels as his canvas to bear witness to people and events that have structured his life. There are outlines of police officers retreating from a Chicano Moratorium skirmish, and StarShots photo studio backdrops that were popular with Latinx youth in the 1990s. But the heart of the show is the room of portraits depicting esparza’s constellation of friends and other artists. 

esparza asked each of his subjects how they wished to be depicted, and each image is a slice of quotidian life exuding calm and pleasure: Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors in repose outside her South Los Angeles home; fashion designer Victor Barragán in the midst of scarfing down a taco; poet Yosimar Reyes standing beside his grandmother in a resplendent floral-pattern coat. The paintings are lovingly rendered, insisting upon the rightful presence of brown, Black, and queer bodies in the white cube of the gallery. Pigments of vermilion, emerald, and magenta pop out from these panels, but the vibrant colors never upstage the many shades of brown that form the universe of each picture plane.

rafa esparza, “Tayhana” (2021), acrylic on adobe, approx. 70.75 x 48 x 1.5 inches

One exception is the portrait of Chalino Sánchez; he isn’t alive to dictate the terms of his representation, so esparza based the portrait on an archival photograph. In it, he wears a cowboy hat and gold jewelry as he cheeses for the camera. Despite Sánchez’s larger-than-life mythology — often remembered as much for his life full of hustling and violence — here he is as a carefree young man with a radiant smile, remembered in a light that those closest to him would find familiar.

rafa esparza, “Chalino” (2021), acrylic on adobe, 71.5 x 49 x 1.5 inches

The portrait gallery is a sanctuary: reverential yet grounded in the everyday. In painting on a surface that is both durable and prone to erosion, esparza reminds us of the precarity of life for those on the margins and the ever-present need to hold onto the joy of a life shared with others. Collaboration is key for esparza, who is intentional about supporting other artists. What’s moving about keeping is that despite the challenges of collaboration given the COVID-19 pandemic, he still used the opportunity of a solo exhibition to uplift his community.

rafa esparza: keeping continues by appointment at Commonwealth and Council (3006 West 7th Street, Suite 220, Koreatown, Los Angeles) through April 10.

Daniel Soto is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. @danesoto