Rock, linen, pigment, alabaster, fox droppings, poison. Such is the constitution of Armando Cortes’ multipart installation, “Estésen Cercas,” at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Named for a colloquialism often spoken in the pastoral town in Michoácan, México where the California-raised artist was born, “estésen cercas” means to keep close, or within the bounds of the “cerca,” the stacked-rock wall surrounding a home. The vernacular use of the phrase conjures another familiar saying: “stay where I can see you.” But this common usage differs from its literal definition; “estésen cercas” is actually a direct invocation of the fragilely-balanced rock wall itself. Like a prayer, it calls the cerca to stay intact, unharmed.
As the 2021-22 recipient of the St. Elmo’s Arts Residency and fellowship — a partnership between the University of Texas Department of Art and Art History and the Wildflower Center — Cortés spent nine months living in a South Austin residence-studio complex. Awarded to those who have graduated from a U.S.-based MFA program within the last year, the fellowship also offers a $30,000 stipend, health insurance, and opportunities to teach at UT and the Wildflower Center.
Cortés, who completed his MFA at Yale University in 2021, creates objects, performances, and large-scale sculptures that stem from research and reflections on labor, both the personal and intergenerational experience of the term. By engaging in the physical process of art making, or performing instances of endurance and everyday toil, the artist uses his body as a receptacle, reenacting the experiences of his ancestors and simultaneously feeling them as his own.
‘Estésen cercas’ is the artist’s latest iteration in this line of inquiry. The installation features three suspended linen panels which stretch from floor to ceiling — each with a different delicately-drawn, life-size portrait — and a fragmented cerca, which forms a V-shape that transects the gallery. A small glass jar filled with red liquid, its rim stuffed with a corn husk, appears nestled in the rocks of the cerca, embedded as a wishful offering.
While the cerca stands as the cornerstone of the installation, it’s the portraits that contextualize the sizable rock structure. Each portrait holds allegorical meaning which, when placed so closely in relation to the cerca, transform it beyond that of simply a fence, boundary, or demarcation of property. Faces and skin appear fully rendered, though clothing is only shown in subtle contour, indicating the pull and tug around their bodies. In “Yo me llamo Carmela,” Cortés draws the intricate flowered embroidery of the subject’s dress with such detail that it appears sewn onto the linen surface. The portraits sway subtly, animated by the wind blowing into the gallery from the Wildflower Center grounds, or perhaps by a wandering spirit.
Though it’s a single work, “Estésen Cercas” provides a rich discussion of the multiple meanings enshrined in everyday language. Through the gesture of stacking rocks, Cortés discusses the overlapping between personal and territorial boundaries, exploring our unending impulse to demarcate and enforce such frail and imagined differences between concepts such as ours and theirs, the familiar and the unknown, the safe and wild. Cortés’ work notes that these constructions, which may appear as firm and solid as stacked rock, could easily be toppled over.
‘Estésen cercas’ continues through May 15 at the Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse, wildflower.org