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A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Jenelle Esparza came to San Antonio in 2008 to study photography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2010. Since graduating, she has completed a number of public art installations and solo exhibitions at venues such as Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, REM Gallery, 3rd Space Art Gallery, and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, where her new installation, El Color de la Obra, is on view through Oct. 8.
While most of her art is steeped in photographic traditions, Esparza has been exploring a number of non-traditional approaches to the medium, with the latest being the creation of an immersive environment where mirrors are involved in connecting viewers to a photographic mural. In terms of subject matter, the artist’s interests include feminine archetypal imagery, questions about identity, and human connections to nature, culture, and history.
For one of her earliest projects, Strange Gods (2010), Esparza employed what has come to be known as “camera-less photography,” which entails scanning objects to create digital transparencies that she then illuminates in light boxes. The dramatically backlit images in the series are mostly of imaginary archetypes of female religious deities constructed from overtly feminine items, such as the purple undergarments that appear along with a Victorian brooch and a Ten Commandments bracelet in Strange Gods 6 (Commandments). Esparza conceived the idea for the series while pondering the lack of representation of women in traditional religious doctrines. In Strange Gods 7 (Maria), she placed rosary beads on an open page of a Catholic prayer book to pay homage to the preeminent Biblical woman who is portrayed on the facing page, the Virgin Mary.
Esparza continued her exploration of specifically female archetypes in two subsequent photographic series, As They Were, exhibited in 2012 at REM, and Ancestral Archetypes, exhibited in 2014 at Blue Star Contemporary. In the former, female models dressed in ceremonial garments assumed poses based on the shapes and imagery of pre-Columbian vessels. Isolated against stark black backgrounds, the figures appear to be levitating or floating through time and space, which suggests the Jungian concept that the same female archetypes have existed for centuries.
References to the expansiveness of space and time could also be found in the latter series, where anonymous women are shown in ethereal interiors. In the more compelling examples, the female figures are immersed in darkness or depicted in silhouette against a backdrop of ultra-luminous lighting that suggests a spiritual presence. The overall message in these works seems to be that life in the present is just a precious moment in time, and these women are spiritually aware of their connection to the greater continuum, which includes their personal lineage and histories.
Esparza has also created a number of temporary site-specific installations, the first of which was commissioned in 2012 by Public Art San Antonio (PASA), an active division of the city’s Department of Arts and Culture. Installed in a storefront window in downtown San Antonio, Esparza’s Us and Them investigated the idea that human beings are as much a part of nature as plant life, as evidenced in comparing similarities between the lines on human palms with the patterns on leaves. In advance of the installation, Esparza took hand prints from artists, writers, activists, and public figures, and then suspended the prints from the ceiling, interspersed with leaf pressings to form a grid. To connect these representations of human and plants to the larger cosmos, Esparza immersed the prints in a dangling mass of rhinestones and reflective discs that served as a metaphor for a spiritual life force.
In 2015, PASA invited Esparza to participate in another project. To celebrate the opening of the department’s new gallery space at the Plaza de Armas, selected artists were offered the challenge of creating new work in direct response to the site, which is a historical landmark. In researching the role of women in the history of San Antonio, Esparza learned that, dating as far back as the 18th century, one of the chief roles of Mexican woman was to cook for soldiers. By the early 20th century, men would set up stands to sell their agricultural goods during the daytime, and at the end of the day, the women would replace them to sell chili con carne. From around 1900-1930, the Plaza de Armas site was populated with chili stands that formed the nexus of a lively night life for locals and tourists alike.
To commemorate the women who made the chili, Esparza combined photography with the traditionally female domestic process of sewing to create Homage a las Chili Queens. Arranged chronologically in a linear progression, the installation included the city’s historical photographs of crowds gathering at the chili stands, juxtaposed with Esparza’s hand-sewn aprons, each featuring a printed image of a “chili queen” lifted from the photos. In an adjacent part of the installation, Esparza curated a sculptural altar in the form of an oversized apron, fashioned to resemble a wedding gown with stitched-on comments by a food historian about chili.
Esparza’s most enthralling installations to date are the ones that involve viewer participation. Working in the traditions of James Turrell’s light environments or Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, Esparza conceived her video installation at 3rd Space, Of Water and Time (2013), as an artwork that is only complete when the viewer interacts with it. Continuing her investigation of the human connection to nature, the artist constructed a theatrical setting where curtains, decorated with leaf pressings similar to those introduced in Us and Them, frame a video of water from the Gulf of Mexico that is projected over wall-mounted light boxes featuring images of nature, such as a tranquil seascape. To engage fully in the work, viewers were invited to stand in a centrally positioned sandbox.
In the current exhibition at the Guadalupe, viewer immersion in the space is a bit more subtle, as we only discover what can be experienced by looking directly into a series of box sculptures that are installed along one of the walls. In El Color de la Obra – the color of the work – Esparza pays tribute to her ancestors, Mexican cotton field workers. On the wall opposite the boxes, the artist installed a breathtaking photographic mural of cotton fields in all their glory. In front of the center wall, we find a vintage cotton scale and on the wall itself are printed words in Spanish that translate to “thirty, forty, or fifty, no, life is very hard, but beautiful,” which refer to the laborers’ pride in their work, an impression Esparza formed after conducting considerable research.
The most intriguing part of the installation, again, is the grouping of mysterious boxes. Look into them directly and you will find bronze cast cotton balls that resemble jewelry and, through the magic of reflective mirrors, a beautiful tunnel effect that merges the bronze cotton balls, your own image, and the cotton fields from the mural to form a strange visual mash-up. Recalling Esparza’s earlier female archetypes who float through space and time, it is the viewer who now travels through time, virtually, to the cotton fields of yore.
Top image: Bird of Flight, 2012. Photo by courtesy of Jenelle Esparza.