Nature & New Perspectives at the 2024 CAM Perennial Exhibition

by Seyde Garcia May 13, 2024
Cardboard jacket with landscapes cut out

Juan Carlos Escobedo, “Brownscape View-Neck”

Every year, before the beginning of spring, the San Antonio artistic community seems to bloom. This year was no exception, and on March 1, the Contemporary Art Month (CAM) Perennial Exhibition kicked off a month-long celebration in the city.

Vernacular Systems, curated by Christopher Blay, features the work of twelve artists from San Antonio and Houston; the show returns to the venue where the perennial first started in 1986: The Contemporary at Blue Star.

Set within two spaces in the building, this exhibition has a theme of interconnectivity and presents a variety of works in which we can witness different techniques even in the same artists’ works, all of which hold a subtle connection. 

Installation of a large sculpture with fabric and steel armature

Zulma Vega, “Vernacular System”

Vernacular System is the title of an installation by Zulma Vega that inspired the show’s title. This piece, surrounded by the phrase “When extracted it transforms, but can it flourish?,” is composed of strips of textiles, such as recycled bed sheets and t-shirts that the artist immersed in water and concrete to evoke the interconnection of a human being that has evolved and adapted but is still aware of their roots. These lines are connected to a piece of dirt and grass on the floor that the viewer can water. Vega’s sculpture is a reminder that no matter where we are, we can ground ourselves with what makes us: our memories, traditions, and beliefs. Humans grow just as nature does, against all odds and within our own cycles. Strong roots give us the strength to create new systems.

Drawings of eyes with a shelf of coffee grounds underneath

Zulma Vega, “Impermanence”

Impermanence, also by Zulma Vega, is a series of screenprints with coffee grounds on paper that show an eye, which fades much like memories do as time goes by. Under the prints is a line of coffee grounds that also seems to be fading. The smell that attracts you to the piece is strong, just like the Colombian coffee the artist associates with the moments her mother would take as she rested between juggling the care of her four kids. There is a dialogue between Vega’s two pieces in the show. Once brewed, the coffee grounds can be composted to grow new plants. This speaks to me as a metaphor for how everything returns to earth in order for new things to be born.

Painting of figures in a field watering crops with poison

Nela Garzón, “Things go Better with Coke” (detail), 2023, acrylic on canvas.

Nela Garzón’s pieces from the series Evil Spirits Out: Resistance and Ancestral Medicine reflect on the way colonialist practices have misused the gifts the Earth has given us. In Garzón’s Niñas Santas, there is a scared María Sabina, a well-known curandera from Huautla, Oaxaca, holding magical mushrooms, surrounded by green grass, deity figures, and quotidian objects like sunglasses, cameras, and cigarettes. 

It was surprising to see fear in a representation of someone who has always been an embodiment of wisdom and tenderness. I remember the words of her sacred prayer: “Cúrate mijita, con las hojas de la menta, ponle amor al té en lugar de azúcar y tómalo mirando las estrellas” [Heal yourself, my girl, with mint leaves, put love in the tea instead of sugar and drink it while looking at the stars]. The work references the real story of the curandera María Sabina, who was pushed to share the magical mushroom with hippy communities that were looking for a psychedelic experience; she eventually led her town to tragedy through a fire, which is represented in one corner of the piece.

Garzón’s work in this exhibition calls for respect of ancestral traditions that have been corrupted by systems that demonize their healing power, and capitalistic practices that have tried to underrate the nurturing power of nature and women.

Following on the idea of interconnections with nature, we can also talk about the work’s beauty, manifested in bright colors and symmetrical compositions that radiate joy — the same feeling given off by Nature’s Substance by Preston Gaines, a two-dimensional wall work made of wood, of yellow and orange-colored flowers that mesmerized me and speaks on the perfect harmony of all forms in nature. 

Three rows of polaroids on shelves

Monique Garza, “Sunken B-Sides

Near Gaines’ work is a series of abstract Polaroids by Monique Garza titled Sunken B-Sides that capture chemical reactions of different components. As the size of these images is much smaller than Gaines’ pieces, the viewer needs to stand closer to them to see the details and let them reveal their variety of colors. Viewing the pieces is like looking through a microscope at the details of natural forms; it’s an analogy of the micro and macro world through two works in front of each other.

Just before I left the exhibition, I went back to see Shavon Morris’ collaged photographs and found yet another connection. 

Morris’s work explores the place of Black women in society. The Office is a collage of two black and white photographs and 1970s magazine memorabilia. On the right half of the composition, a Black woman — her head and neck tall, with her hair tied back and her eyebrow up — fearlessly looks at the viewer. On the left side is a white woman. Even when she smiles, her neck is turned down slightly, and her gaze still meets ours. 

It is clear that the image remarks on the sense of the defensive versus relaxed positions the two women hold in the same society. The white woman, relaxed and fitting within the capitalist system of patriarchy, shows us how a woman “should be”: born to please, to be liked, smiling, but looking up. The Black woman seems to be challenging that system and ready to break it down. 

This is a reminder that real power and freedom must come first from within, which gives us the strength to fight for what’s right and to defend what we love. This image gave me a sense of hope after reflecting on what happened to María Sabina’s community.

Leaving nature aside, I found more connections while thinking of the vernacular as an urban system in Juan Carlos Escobedo’s and Alán Serna’s work. Escobedo’s cardboard pieces, slightly inspired by haute couture, reveal architectural landscapes commonly found in Mexican neighborhoods. The landscapes are in dialogue with two of Serna’s colorful paintings, which are phrases on panels of found objects and what seem like wired fences in northern borders. 

The use of low-cost materials and representations of architectural systems proudly show the heritage of people who have grown up in the Mexico-U.S. region and have connections with the two cultures.

A good closure to the interconnections of the show is Mark Anthony Martinez’s hilarious neon sign that states “No new white friends.” With a slice of humor, it reflects how our narratives as a society are commonly defined by the not-so-diverse groups of people in power. It also invites us to question everything that has been taken as a fact and to look for new perspectives, both from the people we decide to have conversations with and from the sources of information we look toward.


The CAM Perennial, Vernacular Systems, is curated by Christopher Blay and is on view through June 9 at The Contemporary at Blue Star. Seyde Garcia is the third recipient of the annual Contemporary Art Month Writer’s Fellowship.

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