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Esteban Cabeza de Baca's Time Travels

September 20, 2023

Painter Esteban Cabeza de Baca quietly defies the laws of space and time, blending past, present, and future in richly layered landscapes of the American Southwest that mirror the myriad histories of the terrains they depict. From his studio in Queens, to on-site painting at the US-Mexico border, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this short documentary follows a young artist as he strives to give form to both his personal story and the still-present legacy of colonialism. “The way that my paintings develop is in a very intuitive approach of what I feel, but also searching for who I am,” he says. “Growing up along the border and not being connected to a lot of my heritage, I have had to find it on my own.”

In the desert outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, Cabeza de Baca works in classic en plein air painting style on a portable easel. Observational painting is the foundation from which the artist develops his large-scale canvases back in his New York studio. Often working on a canvas dyed with hand-crushed cochineal, Cabeza De Baca employs a range of abstract gestures and illustrative imagery, where recognizable desert forms like mesas and cacti inhabit the same space as cosmic rips and swirls. In these layered compositions, the artist deconstructs colonial-era depictions of the American West, populating the land with the people, cultures, and spiritualities typically left out.

With his mother beside him, Cabeza de Baca paints the highly politically charged border between the United States and Mexico at San Ysidro, California. Painting, in the artist’s words, is an attempt at freedom, justice, and joy. As his mother expresses how hard it is to see the fences in the once-open landscape where she spent her childhood, Cabeza de Baca remarks, “We have to express it in order to get past it and imagine something bigger than it.”

More information and credits


Director & Producer: César Martínez Barba. Executive Producer: Tina Kukielski. New York Close Up Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Editor: Lorena Alvarado. Cinematography: Pete Quandt. Sound: Christian Guinanzaca. Associate Producer: Andrea Chung. Assistant Curator: Jurrell Lewis. Additional Cinematography: Dan Brauchli, César Martínez Barba. Color Correction: Lanee Bird. Sound Design & Mix: Gisela Fullà-Silvestre. Design & Graphics: Chips. Music: Tamuz Dekel, frey_s, Dylan Henner. Assistant Editors: Stephanie Cen, Michelle Hanks. Artwork Courtesy: Esteban Cabeza de Baca. Thanks: Bandelier National Monument, Rosario Cabeza de Baca, Andy Cahill, Dar al Islam, Garth Greenan Gallery, Heidi Howard, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Circuit Films, Rebecca Schear, Tariq Shafi. © Art21, Inc. 2023. All rights reserved.

New York Close Up is made possible with support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, and individual contributors.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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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 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