Emily Esperanza brings father’s work to Marfa with ‘Lyrical Language (Lenguaje Lírico)’ exhibition

Photo courtesy of Emily Esperanza / “The Pose in Six Movements” by Raciel Esperanza

MARFA – When Raciel Esperanza did his first large-scale painting 11 years ago, he says he had no considerations about what he was going to do with it or how it could be moved. All he was sure of was an inherent need to do large paintings.

The artist soon became prolific with his mural-esque work, painting with oil on large canvases in modest studio spaces. From then on, Raciel has been generating a series of large-scale muralistic oil paintings, finishing some during his residency at Marfa Open this April, and even completing an actual wall mural outside the exhibition space in town.

His murals were rolled up canvases, tucked here and there, never publicly exhibited in their entirety. But when unfurled, his daughter Emily Esperanza said the colorful paintings are fantastic, vibrant windows or portals into dreamlike realities.

Emily, a Marfa resident and curator at Marfa Open, had a lifelong goal to bring Raciel’s work to the public, and on April 22, it came to fruition. “It feels really good to be able to show these pieces and the response has been pretty beautiful,” they said.

The exhibition, Lyrical Language (Lenguaje Lírico): The Murals, Paintings, and Drawings of Raciel Esperanza, is on view at Marfa Open through May 30. On the canvases on view, Raciel has painted surrealist figures of nude but inexplicit bodies, towering seven or eight feet tall, larger than life.

The large scale is part of Raciel’s intention to break out of the world of portraits and into the Mexican muralist tradition. Born in Ocotlán de Morelos, Oaxaca, Mexico in 1962, his work draws deeply on the colors, traditions and natural elements of his home.

Moving through the historic train depot turned art gallery, the fluid figures dominate on the canvas, but alongside them, Raciel has adorned the paintings with natural features like birds, flowers, bees, shells, leaves and snails. He told his daughter, “Without the bees, there’s no life,” which Emily says relates to an idea of honoring and respecting aspects of life that are often overlooked.

“He taught me about innovation and possibility by the creative repurposing of everyday objects and a respect for life and the natural world,” Emily says. In one part of the exhibition where his smaller works and figure studies are on view, Raciel has even used those organic materials for his works on paper, pushing cilantro, flower petals and berries across paper to paint with their pigments.

“It looks like the colors of Oaxaca, the buildings, the markets, the skirts,” Emily says. “It’s very alive.” They grew up creating piñatas, costumes and papier-mâché masks with their dad in their Santa Fe home, and that joyful creation still persists in his work.

Bringing those colors and human figures to Marfa has been interesting, the curator says, “because we’re used to seeing so much minimalism, grey tones, scaled back, sort of repressed interpretations of being – of life – and these are so vibrant and kind of joyful, that it feels really good to be able to offer that here, specifically.”

Raciel says that his drive to create this vibrant art is in part due to his day job. “I’ve worked in restaurants for a long time – and still do,” he explains. “You have to follow a certain time, a standard of work, the things you need to accomplish and not make mistakes with your orders,” he says. But it’s after he clocks out that the Oaxacan-born painter is able to focus on his own work.

“You go home and you have a canvas in front of you, and that’s my freedom. That’s what sets you free. It’s where I can dictate what I want to show, to express, to feel. It’s an inner feeling that comes from my daily life, my fears, my happiness.”

While he expresses his inner world, he also hopes his works can stand on their own, separate from himself and the era he lives in. “The nudity on some of these paintings also represents the timeless,” he says. Instead of giving clothing that could tie the figures to a specific era in time, Raciel uses nude forms to keep viewers from pinning down the work.

“I like to set it free, so when you see the paintings, you can make a story if you like. But in the meantime, I like to do the paintings to be independent from myself.” That independence of a creation from its creator is something Raciel says exists in his work, and in his daughter.

“There was a process for her to exist and be born, but after that [they] becomes independent, and [they are] great in [their] own way, independent from [their] mother and me,” he said. “[They are] just a new being,” something he hopes is true of everything he creates.