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LOS ANGELES — Robert Rauschenberg famously said of his early years as an artist, “If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction — but that was it. The works had to be at least as interesting as anything going on outside the window.” Carmen Argote has taken this idea to heart in her two exhibitions this summer, one at the Hammer Museum’s biennial, Made In LA, and one at Commonwealth and Council, which represents her. Argote’s walk was around Eastlake in Lincoln Park, close by her studio. Her presentations at both venues center on a concrete dome she spotted in the lake that houses a filtration system. “Filtration System for a Process Based Practice” (2018), her piece for Made In LA, is a to-scale facsimile of the dome covered with draped linen, then used by Argote as a base upon which to make circular paintings on muslin. She is exhibiting leftovers from this process at Commonwealth and Council.
The muslin circles shown at Made In LA are paintings only in the most rudimentary sense, as evidenced by their display: they are folded into wedges and stacked on the floor, functioning as a single visual object rather than individual works in their own right. They bear passing association with Richard Tuttle’s fabric works, but overlapped on the floor, that reference is mostly lost. The linen drape over the dome is adorned in long, watery drips of paint that cascaded down the sides of the sculpture while she painted each of the muslin circles, standing on them as they lay atop the dome’s roof. The drips have soaked into the linen like a Morris Louis stain painting in faded colors, and are handsome in an understated way.
Commonwealth and Council’s exhibition is titled The Artist, having used all her money to make the work, lives in the mother-mold of her sculpture. The gallery is filled with artfully arranged scrap, including the mold used to cast the parts of the dome on view at the Hammer, another set of painted muslin circles (this time draped over a steel rack), pieces of Ram Board stained with acrylic, and some papier-mâché works cast from the dome’s mold, that curve up from the floor onto the wall. The boards had been underneath the dome when it was in her studio, and they soaked up the thinned acrylic as Argote painted the muslin circles on top of it, the excess color pouring down the sides to the floor, transforming the sheets of Ram Board into a set of Helen Frankenthaler-like stain paintings.
Her exhibition title emphasizes that she has no money left after making the show at the Hammer, and every object at Commonwealth and Council is visually unremarkable, in contrast to the pieces at Made In LA, which are more striking. The works at the gallery, quite a few with Argote’s notes scrawled upon them, seem intended to resist any potential role as pricey art objects. Argote herself could at this point in her career easily move to a different gallery that caters to the high end of the market, but she remains with Commonwealth and Council, a gallery that has only recently been developing its commercial dimension. In this light, the domed filtration system slides into place as metaphor, Argote’s way of telling us she is making conscious decisions about what she allows into her artistic life and what she rejects.
Standing atop the dome, Argote is a solitary person on an island of her own making. Literally a figure on a plinth, she becomes a monument to her refusals. Argote’s paintings fit that name only in so far as they are pigment applied to fabric, while the byproducts of their creation summon works by masters of the medium, with enormous market value. Her twin exhibitions suggest that by remaining separate from the churnings of commodification and “high art,” the artist retains control of her life and work. This separation confers certain benefits; as explained in the gallery show’s title, Argote “lives in the mother-mold of her own sculpture,” as intimate a relationship with one’s art as an artist could hope for. Yet I don’t find her position entirely convincing, in that there are plenty of artists who fully participate in commerce yet continue to make art that hews to their highest and continually evolving standards, Kerry James Marshall being just one of numerous available examples. Nonetheless, the status of intentional remove seems to suit Argote, whose ability to make noteworthy work is consistent, and consistently growing stronger.
Carmen Argote: The Artist, having used all her money to make the work, lives in the mother-mold of her sculpture continues at Commonwealth and Council (3006 W 7th St #220, Los Angeles) through August 18. Made in LA continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through September 2.