Let Earth Breathe

Esteban Cabeza de Baca weaves a narrative of nature at The Momentary


By Kate Mothes

In the first epoch in which nature itself is recognized to be suffering, beleaguered by human interference and on the brink of irreversible damage, Esteban Cabeza de Baca expresses deep concern for humanity’s relationship with the natural world. “Nature isn’t an armchair,” he said when asked what spurred the idea for his solo exhibition Let Earth Breathe at The Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas, wanting to encourage action and participation at this critical time. He adds, “Everything humans do is a collaboration with nature, but it’s just a matter of if we are cognizant of our footprint or not.” 

Engaging with the unique building—a decommissioned 63,000-square-foot factory—an undercurrent of urgency flows through a series of multimedia artworks. Spanning the indoor and outdoor spaces of the lobby gallery, the artist sows new visions of the land and its future while acknowledging its manifold histories. Natural light filters through industrial architecture where potted plants have been suspended from the rafters, and sun glints off an adjacent Quonset hut where he has painted graffiti called Magic Sky, evocative of the ubiquitous freight train box cars that rumble across rural America. “The light in painting outdoors can’t be beat compared to painting indoors,” he says. “What keeps me going back to working outdoors is humbling my senses to the changing of light and time in nature, to recognize the continuum of life within this cycle and see how it sees.”

Tesseract, 2022. Acrylic paint on cinderblock wall
Espirales del futuro poscolonial, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in.
Host, 2022. Bronze with living plants
Host (detail), 2022. Bronze with living plants

Cabeza de Baca employs a range of materials and methods including painting, graffiti, and sculpture. For the outdoor spaces, he has produced bronze sculptures for the first time that bear plants native to the region. Flowering plants on the figurative Host have attracted pollinators, monarch larvae that have cocooned in the foliage, and blossoms that will eventually turn to berries. A public seed bank has also been installed in an antique card catalog containing Echinacea, Raspberry, Arkansas Beardtongue, Black-Eyed Susan, Prairie Blazing Star, and others specific to the region, which visitors are encouraged to take with them and plant. He says, “I’m interested in art that doesn’t just sit idle but activates real ideas and extends out into the real world. This idea of giving away pieces of the art extends its reach out into the world, taking authorship into a shared story of multispecies revitalization.”

Seed bank
Magic Sky, 2022. Acrylic paint on Quonset hut
Besar La Tierra, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 5 x 10 ft.

In clearing a pathway to a less toxic, more sustainable, and more empathetic approach to living and working within nature, he carefully considers the connection to the environment, the land, and ourselves as one in the same. An open sitting space inside the gallery invites a sense of communion with the surroundings. Panoramic landscape paintings with multiple points of perspective swirl in enigmatic, vine-like spirals. “Painting the landscape is so diverse and carries the stories of my ancestors,” he says. Redolent of the elegant whorls of human fingerprints and carvings made in stone by Indigenous inhabitants of the American Southwest, the spirals in Beaver Moon, Besar La Tierra, and the outdoor mural Tesseract appear to be moving simultaneously inward and outward. “Part of this exhibit is how to extend this ethos of proper land acknowledgement back to the Earth and Indigenous communities,” he explains. “How can we re-story and re-pollinate the Earth away from an anthropocentric tale of despair?”

Let Earth Breathe runs until September 25 at The Momentary. Find more of Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s work on his website and Instagram.

Header image: Host, 2022. Bronze with living plants. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery. Installation photographs by Jared Sorrells, courtesy of The Momentary.

Installation view of community table with Let Earth Breathe, 2022. Cochineal dyed fabric with acrylic.

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