It might not be the first thing you notice San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art located downtown, but it will soon be the soundtrack: the sometimes breathy voice of artist Carmen Argote, looped through audio recordings taken from her iPhone.
The recordings document the observations, as well as the beginnings and trajectories of the works of art.
“In those breathless moments, they’re actually very genuine — she’s going for really long walks, and something is going to kind of catch her eye and she’ll be like, ‘Hey, Siri,'” the assistant curator said. MCASD, Isabel Casso, who co-curated the exhibition with Jill Dawsey.
“Carmen is very interested in process art. But hearing how she got to the works on the wall or the works on the floor is very helpful,” Casso said. “It helps give direction to many of the works in the exhibition.”
The exhibition space – a single large room – contains a collection of recent works by the Guadalajara-born, Los Angeles-based artist, each of which began as an observation or one of those “Hey, Siri” moments. .
Works include sculptures, textile works, paintings, and pieces made from found objects and waste.
“The conversation that really comes up is a conversation about walking as a practice. Taking things around us and transformation,” Argote said.
The largest sculpture in the exhibit lends its name to the exhibit: “Filtration System for Process-Based Practice,” which is a mound shape covered in painted linen. It is inspired by a concrete filtration structure in an artificial lake in Lincoln Park in Los Angeles, where Argote often walks.
To Argote, it almost looked like an island, and she imagined herself climbing on it. In her studio, she could. Drawing inspiration from her walk in her art, she transforms the observation, the object, into something new.
One series, the “Cosmic Backpacks”, are a set of constructions made of stacked, folded and molded pizza boxes, shaped into backpacks and hung on the wall. At the start of the pandemic, Argote wandered around her neighborhood, picking up used pizza boxes from neighbors’ trash.
“And what interested me was that these stains looked like a cosmic language. So it was almost like a decipherment. What does it say?” Argote said.
Alchemy of materials
Five suspended textile pocket works – all made in 2019 – highlight the impact and interactions of the chosen materials. Long strips of fabric hang on the wall, with various sizes and shapes of pockets sewn to the front.
Argote mixed raw mineral oxide washes in various muted shades – pink, yellow, blue, green, purple – and poured the liquid into the pockets. The fabric pockets couldn’t hold the liquid, so the pigments dripped onto each piece.
The paperback series is arguably a springboard for future works in the exhibition, where Argote uses more chemistry and oxidation in the materials she mixes in her works. The final aesthetic result depends on how the different components interact and react to each other.
“His interest in filtration and alchemy, I think, also stemmed from his fairly literal training as a ceramist as an undergrad, but then morphed into an understanding of how the body filters the life, filters out a number of things,” Casso said.
There is also beauty.
“For Florence (2020)” is a 15-foot high work on paper. Cochineal, gel medium, cotton wool toilet paper, lemon juice, duck droppings and lake water combine and almost mimic a night sky. A white line marks where the paper has sunk into the lake and the pH has changed – a sort of horizon.
Another large work, “Urine Map in Book Form”, is a 30-foot-long piece of paper placed directly on the floor of the gallery. Using tannic acid dye, iron powder, pencil and his own urine, Argote repeated the word “MOTHER” – rubbings taken from nearby graves – along with fascinating flower patterns where the liquids accumulated, formed streams and reacted.
“Urine Map in Book Form” is an accumulation of the processes explored by Argote in other works in this exhibition, but it also branches out into another body of work, called “Mother”.
“I think something that really united the works (in this exhibition) is this idea of going from the body outward, from the self outward,” Argote said. “Whereas, for example, “Mother” as a body of work goes from the body inwards. So there is a fluctuation between the architecture of the self which moves outwards and then looks at the world , and then the other kind of point of view or perspective of which is to take the architecture of the self and then delve into that.”
OK, about that urine
At the start of the pandemic, public toilets closed along the pedestrian route of Argote during the pandemic. Since she drank enough water to support her walks, she would have nowhere to use the bathroom except to squat nearby.
“It’s just kind of lowering those limits and then also noticing, you know, there’s a lot of people without housing, and there’s also no room for them to use the bathroom,” Argote said. “There was just a very physical need.”
In his work this also became a ritual and his own body became part of the art. She recognized her body as her own filtration system.
Pieces like “For Florence”, “Urine Map in Book Form” and “I’m take all I can carry” use the reactions between urine and other elements to create a distinct aesthetic pattern, but also to signify the striking processes and metamorphoses that materials and sources appropriate by becoming something else, something beautiful.
Urine and its chemical reactions and spattering patterns have already been used by artists, most notably with Warhol’s “Oxidation” series, known as the “Piss Paintings”. But Argote noted that these were all very masculine, where shock was the point.
For Argote, his relationship to process is always inherently gestural, and his works are unmistakably in conversation with Warhol’s legacy, according to Casso.
“In another way, I think one of the other undercurrents of the show is all these little acts of rebellion, even throwing toilet paper balls at the ceiling like you did in high school in a work like “For Florence”. Or you have moments of public indiscretion like urinating, and those little things that collectively add up to be something bigger, which I think you can consider a very beautiful thing like a broader act of resistance,” Casso said.
“Filtration System for Process-Based Practice” can be viewed on MCASD’s downtown campus through October 23, 2022