Walking into Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas’s exhibition, Freedom, you are greeted with a deep mossy green wall containing black, organically shaped forms, each featuring small paintings adhered to their centers. The forms are crafted from Mesquite wood, painted black with sumi ink, and sumi ink paintings on prints from John James Audubon’s well-known Birds of America collection and bear the same title. Sumi ink is made from burning tree sap. This wall therefore serves as our gateway to the core theme of the exhibition—a perilous tension between humanity and the natural world.
Mesquite, a familiar tree to Texans, if only through its connection to Texas barbeque, refers to a group of over 40 small leguminous plants native to arid regions in the Americas. Indigenous communities like the Coahuiltecan people revered mesquite as the “tree of life” for its remarkable abilities (drawing nitrogen from the air into the soil, having extensive roots that tap water from deep underground, as a nutritious food source, etc.) … Despite its virtues, cattle ranchers regard mesquite as an invasive pest due to its remarkable resilience and proliferation, thwarting various eradication methods. While the indigenous peoples of this land once coexisted harmoniously with the environment, including mesquite, our current economic system promotes the destruction of natural resources. Bergman and Salinas, during their residency and research, consider what it means to live alongside mesquite.
The artworks atop the blocks of painted mesquite further emphasize the tension between nature, ethics, and capitalism by addressing John James Audubon’s Birds of America collection. Audubon’s legal ownership of enslaved people and practice of hunting and killing the birds to pose them for his drawings, which are now revered symbols of nature conservation, underscore the irony and disconnect. Birds, often symbolizing freedom, can go where they please, in contrast to the portrayal of freedom here as an elusive concept sold by those in power, exemplifying humanity’s recurring struggle to dominate.
This interdisciplinary installation encompasses various elements. It features audio of people discussing mesquite and its significance playing throughout the gallery. Along the benches are stacks of books that the artists have read as part of their research for their exhibition. Opposite Birds of America, you’ll find the work titled Free Shipping, a wall covered in flattened cardboard boxes. These boxes were sourced by Artpace, collected over several months, and used as surfaces for painting by the artists and their daughter Agnes, a consciousness of the materials we incorporate into our lives.
Finally, on the gallery floor, a stack of posters pays homage to the late Félix González-Torres, who served as an Artpace Resident in 1995 and has long inspired Bergman and Salinas. Interestingly, they also occupy the same studio space that González-Torres used nearly three decades ago. Influenced by his text 1990: LA, The Gold Field, and his commitment to creating art that connected people in the face of existential and political trauma, Bergman and Salinas wrote an essay as a work in the exhibition. Their essay, freely given as were González-Torres’ posters, rests in a stack on the gallery floor, delves further into the intricate layers of the exhibition and the multifaceted challenges we confront in a profit-driven, capital-centric world that prioritizes the economy over our own ecosystem.