Artist Profile: Carmen Argote
“Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light” ~ Dylan Thomas
“The city is the material and my body is the studio. Hopefully, I don’t get demolished.” ~ Carmen Argote
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
A series of compelling concurrent exhibitions by Carmen Argote, completed during the pandemic, are at the following venues: Clockshop (Hand Dog Glove), Commonwealth and Council, (Glove Hand Dog,) Stairwell (Dog Hand Glove) where Argote had a residency. Argote, a multidisciplinary artist whose body of work shown here encompasses drawing, video, and painting, is a self- described “flaneux.” The term, coined by Charles Baudelaire, describes a person who walks the city in order to examine and observe it, instead of just moving in an unseeing hurry. Walking is central to Argote’s art practice (she takes two hour plus walks) allowing her time to think, feel and sort out ideas.
At Clockshop, the large -scale monochromatic drawing entitled Walking Route Shadow Map, Soto to Mission Rd., 2020 is one of the first drawings done for this series. It is a childlike aerial depiction tracing a body (the artist) ambling around the page in a speckled field of dark, mysterious globular splotches. The twelve -minute film entitled “Last Light,” is screening in its entirety, and is the source of much of the imagery in the drawings. In an email, I asked Argote about perplexing sidewalk marks.
She responded: “Los Angeles has all these gum drops (sic) all over the sidewalks. They are like continuous constellations of little black dots. In my walks, I found that my gaze was shifting towards the ground. These gumdrops leading the way in any direction…The drawing of the walking route was concurrent to the start of the film. It was the first drawing, and began as the idea/notion of concept art…Going (sic) into making a film/artwork with the notion of searching for what it was going to be, was apparently not the usual. This process felt familiar to me, because that’s how I usually start –in a state of trusting the process and not knowing…”
Argote’s original vision was to make a sci-fi film in the spirit of “Speech Sounds,” a short story by Octavia E. Butler. However, Last Light, the elegiac film that emerges is part visual diary, part historical document (especially since it was filmed so early in the pandemic) and a haunting rumination on the fragility of life and shattered sense of security. The video begins with stark black and white shots of eerily empty downtown Los Angeles – no cars on the freeway, no people on the streets. Nothingness. The soundtrack captures the hypnotic beeping of a stoplight, which is weirdly reminiscent of the sounds of a hospital room with its whirring and beeping machines.
Argote’s tremulous voice begins the voiceover narration while she continues to walk, the camera focused on her moving feet, then to an empty overpass, deserted roads and closed stores. Slowly, purposely, with pregnant pauses between phrases, she intones plaintively, “I got your message…I’m trying to understand why you wouldn’t help me… I almost died…I don’t feel like I’m made to last…. I’m not the one that’s going to make it.” And the most chilling statement of all — “you’ve decided that my body is contaminated.” Argote’s use of the pronoun “you” is intentionally provocative, as it appears to be both specific and general.
When I asked her about the blending between the very personal and the universal, she wrote: “I entered the process of thinking and making the film the way I enter my work and practice. In many ways, the process felt very familiar. I wanted to use the material of film to go deep into the psychological, and this required turning my phone onto myself and seeing myself as material….”
Here stark black and white gives way to color, as Argote walks a residential neighborhood in serious disrepair, houses boarded up, interiors trashed. She grew up in the Pico Union/Westlake-MacArthur Park neighborhood and talks about her experiences as a young girl trying to navigate the dangerous terrain of the gangs. The raw honesty and directness of these usually unexpressed anxieties is what makes this film so moving. In an interview published by Clockshop gallery, Argote says “ I can be in my vulnerability and still be of enough sound mind to not derail myself in the little death that is art making.” The specter of death seems to be a constant companion to the artist as she wanders and muses on the past, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that she witnessed as a youngster on a bus homeward bound.
Argote focuses the camera on her disembodied hand in a cheap plastic glove. She points at objects and that gloved hand, deprived of sensory information becomes a metaphor for isolation and sensory deprivation. Argote captures the earliest part of the pandemic when the world did stand still. It was when we thought every surface was contaminated, and that the virus could lives for days on ordinary things like cardboard. It seemed life threatening to even pick up the morning newspaper.
The film, a first for the artist and made with a small team, is compulsively watchable, beautifully edited, with sound design that enhances the haunting, surrealistic tone. Though short, it is jam packed with intense memories, feelings about actual or imagined betrayal, ideas and visuals about rampant consumerism. Ultimately, it deserves multiple viewings to digest all the intense intellectual, emotional and political components.
Glove Hand Dog continues at Commonwealth and Council where Argote’s masterful drawings (many but not all are crayon on paper,) are elegantly installed – some on the wall and others as scrolls on the floor. A large group of the drawings are visualizations of the circular movements of the guard dog in Last Light. The artists hand, artfully scribbled and simplified, appears over and over – at times angry, distraught, grasping, yearning, reaching, wanting and longing especially in the dark gray versions of Dog Spin, 2020, Graphite on paper, 39.5 x 53.25 framed. It’s a tantalizing brew of Abstract-Expressionist gesture with a nod to the prehistoric cave paintings of hands. Then there are beautiful almost cheerful versions of this same image – the artists hand tracing the furious turns of the dog, in glorious orange (Gloved Dog floral-single color/orange, Crayon on paper, 32.25 x 24.75 inches framed), or vibrant red (Gloved Dog floral-single color/red, Crayon on paper, 32.25 x 24.75 inches framed),), or purple (Gloved Dog floral-single color/purple, Crayon on paper, 32.25 x 24.75 inches framed.) From across the room, these look like flower imagery highlighted against the stark white background; they are startlingly bright and elegant, like bursts of energy simulating growth.
There is another exceptional body of work here, created with food/food residue and oil stains. The image in Quantities Listed, 2020, protein bar oil and crayon on paper, 32.25 x 24.75 inches framed, is created using the protein bars as a stamp (within an implicit grid) that looks like an ancient alphabet on papyrus or clay tablet – the resulting irregular oil stains are outlined with a confident contour line. Using the protein bars as material continues Argote’s interest in consumer items that denote class/caste. While the protein bars are an expensive and upscale food source, the stains made by the oily imprints on the inside of pizza boxes suggest a cheaper and more ubiquitous food (and are used here as material as well). She has used food before, painting with dark, rich coffee, avocadoes (oily too, and a mainstay of Mexican and Latin American cuisine.) In this time of food insecurity for many, using food as a material has implications as well. Argote’s work is endlessly inventive, conceptually rigorous, beautifully crafted, topical and profoundly personal, while hinting at deeper political and social tensions inherent in our modern life.