Esteban Cabeza de Baca

Esteban Cabeza de Baca was born in 1985 in San Ysidro, California, and currently lives and works in Queens, New York. He received his BFA from Cooper Union in 2010, and his MFA from Columbia University in 2014. Richly layered with color, texture, and pictographic references, Cabeza de Baca’s paintings combine plein-air observation with historical representation and material experimentation. Born to Chicano parents and growing up along the US-Mexico border, the artist’s signature landscapes of the American Southwest mix past, present, and future—mirroring the myriad histories and cultures of the land they depict.

The artist approaches landscape painting as both a time-honored tradition and an art historical phenomenon to be challenged. Often working on a canvas dyed with hand-crushed cochineal, Cabeza de Baca layers abstract gestures and illustrative imagery. Recognizable desert forms like mesas and cacti inhabit the same space as more symbolic motifs, like cosmic rips and swirls. Conscious of the colonial-era painters who depicted the land as a space to be ordered and tamed, Cabeza de Baca instead uses observational en plein air painting as a way of letting the environment guide his image-making. These on-site impressions form one of the foundational layers of his paintings, becoming the backdrop for historical, cultural, and spiritual scenes and references.

Combining observation and imagination, his works range from abstract depictions of landscapes with multiple perspectives stacked atop one another, as in Espirales de poscolonial (2021), to representations of historical events or portraits of living subjects, like Rosario Cabeza de Baca (2023), depicting the artist’s mother. In Huelga (2023), distant blue mountain ranges and bright green fields form the backdrop for a procession of strikers protesting for fair wages in an agricultural field. In Golondrinas (2023), three doll-like figures in embroidered dresses fly toward the horizon above a southwestern landscape, referencing the migrating swallow and a search for home. In other works, like How Mora, New Mexico banned fracking (2022) and Besar La Tierra (2021), the landscape peeks through more abstract spiral patterns that the artist paints in reference to pre-colonial methods of representing and measuring the stars and the seasons. Requiring time and attention from the viewer, Cabeza de Baca’s paintings suggest the transformative possibility of new, more just relationships to North American land and history.

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“The way that my paintings develop is in a very intuitive approach of what I feel, but also searching for who I am. Growing up along the border and not being connected to a lot of my heritage, I have had to find it on my own.”

Esteban Cabeza de Baca