In her solo show at Women & Their Work Jenelle Esparza uses repurposed heirlooms and found tools, alongside cotton textiles, to explore her family’s generation’s long connection to the land through cotton farming. Esparza’s artistic engagement with these materials bears witness to the violence historically present in the South Texas cotton economy.
From the first large scale work in the show, the complex layers of history Esparza grapples with emerge. The hanging sculpture “Umbilical” (2021) combines a scythe, used by Esparza’s ancestors in the fields, and a magnolia branch with a similar curvature, connected to the scythe by coils of rope that drape onto the ground. The title highlights the family connection the San Antonio-based Esparza has to the materials, and signals her interest in epigenetics, specifically the possibility of inheriting history, behaviors, and experiences in addition to DNA.
The two objects’ similar shapes suggest a metaphorically familial relationship between the scythe, a tool used for farming, and the branch, part of a tree that grew from the land. And yet, the cotton rope coiled around magnolia wood is also a reminder of the history of lynchings that took place in South Texas, targeting both Black and Latino Texans.
Reminders of this history of violence are present throughout the exhibition. An assortment of found metal tools wrapped with natural fibers hang between tapestries. While the original function of some of these objects, like horseshoes and a wrench, are clear, some of the other pieces of metal, removed from their original contexts, become simply shapes on the gallery wall.
Still others, such as “Untitled 7,” “Untitled 8,” and “Untitled 19,” (all from 2021) which likely were originally farming-related, are hung so as to resemble guns, in a reversal of the biblical call to beat swords into plowshares.
In other works, titles frame abstract designs as commentaries on violence. In “The Massacre of Borders 1” and “The Massacre of Borders 2” (2022) zigzagged weaving gives way to large sections of vertical string, with clumps of pink and gold metallic yarn hanging from the woven section, as if pulled out of the fabric.
Two other tapestries, “Bodies Swaying Above the Cotton like Sheets on a Line,” (2022) and “Dark Veins Across Texas,” (2022) take their titles from lines in the poem “Sundays After Breakfast: A Lesson in Speech” by Laurie Ann Guerrero. In the first, a row of white tassels hangs from metal hooks in front of a woven cotton background. They initially appear festive, but become haunting as the title contextualizes the tassels as hanging figures.
In “Dark Veins Across Texas,” red strings hang from the woven undyed background, as if dripping. The veins referenced in the title are rivers, which Guerrero describes as carrying the blood of the murdered Black and Brown victims whose corpses were thrown out to the gulf.
While the context is graphic, the artworks are subtle, inviting long looks and reflection on the complexities of the particular place Esparza knows so well. In the video interview that accompanies the exhibition, Esparza explains that she intends for viewers to have a visceral reaction to the exhibition, provoked by the natural materials, and even the earthy ochre of the walls that roots the show in its central concept of land as a witness.
Esparza’s exploration of history through the products of the landscape, extends beyond crop land to the ocean she grew up near in Corpus Christi. Her large sculpture “Untitled 29” (2021) combines driftwood and cotton rope sculpted into twisted shapes resembling coral. These coral shapes recur in works throughout the gallery, twisting up from metal andirons (“Fire Dog 1” “Fire Dog 2” both from 2022), behind rake heads (“Untitled 15,” “Cradle” both 2021) and between the spokes of a cultivator wheel passed down through her family (“Cultivator” 2021).
The many tapestries on view are a stand out of the exhibition. Stacking hand woven fabric behind objects, Esparza creates literally layered engagements with cotton and artifacts. In “Water Rising From the Dirt” (2022), for example, an iron ladle hangs in front of a richly textured blue and white textile.
Esparza describes weaving as “a full body experience,” and accordingly the tapestries call attention to the production process. Some have areas where there are warp threads but no weft, this incomplete weaving creating a kind of negative space. And in some, short threads of thick, colored yarn are incorporated, adding topography-like texture.
“It Could Only Be Lived” is a rich show built upon the physical contrasts between iron and cotton, how both materials have been weaponized, and their complicated place in the lives of Texans. Esparza’s use of family heirlooms as readymades gives each work a sense of place and personality, her admiration for her relative’s strength and resiliency evident in her attention to their history.
“It Could Only Be Lived” continues through Dec. 15 at Women & Their Work, 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St. Admission is free. womenandtheirwork.org