For Carmen Argote, Avocados Are a Paint and a Powerful Metaphor

On view at the New Museum, New York, the artist’s avocado oil paintings further her engagement with the politics of migration, trade and diaspora

‘Walking is my primary process,’ artist Carmen Argote tells me as we stroll through the commercial district of Karaköy, Istanbul. When she arrived four weeks earlier for a residency at Ballon Rouge Collective, the Mexican-born, Los Angeles-based artist began walking aimlessly, sometimes for hours on end, observing mundane details of the city’s urban fabric: corn fibre street brooms, chipped plastic fruit crates, the light dancing on the surface of the Bosporus. ‘A way of understanding how I can connect with the city as a material,’ Argote explains of this dérive, which provided inspiration for her exhibition at Ballon Rouge, ‘Nutrition for a Better Life (Compre Chattara)’. There, a derelict wooden handcart used by one of the city’s many harduci, or scrap dealers, was festooned with knotted blue fishing rope, like the small boats docked on the river’s edge.

Carmen Argote, ‘Nutrition for a Better Life (Compre Chattara)’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Ballon Rouge Collective

In addition to being featured in ‘Searching the Sky for Rain’, a group show at the Sculpture Center, New York, Argote has recently opened her first institutional solo exhibition at the New Museum. ‘As Above, So Below’ – an aphorism associated with sacred geometry and tarot – comprises a series of new and recent works, including avocado paintings on linen, an LED light installation on the glass wall of the Lobby Gallery (an homage to New York City’s bodegas) and an expansive floor-based installation made of dye-stained silk woven in wooden tortilla presses. Most works are the result of recent residencies, including in East Harlem and in the artist’s native city of Guadalajara, where she worked at the former studio of Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco.

‘Carmen Argote: As Above, So Below’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: New Museum, New York; photograph: Dario Lasagni

But it was in Bogotá, while working on an exhibition at Instituto de Visión, that Argote took interest in the dyeing properties of the avocado, once highly-prized in Indigenous cultures. To produce her large paintings (four iterations of which are on display at the New Museum), Argote begins by coating the paper or linen surface with a guava leaf or cochineal dye, a red pigment derived from an insect found on prickly pear cacti, used by the Maya and Aztec peoples since the 15th century (during the colonial period, it became Mexico’s second-most valued export after silver). Kneeling on a squared cardboard surface which demarcates a section of the paper, the artist spreads a strained mixture of avocado and oil paint on top of the first base with her fingers, leaving thick, vibrant traces atop a monochromatic backdrop.

Carmen Argote, Searching with the Fingers, 2019, avocado painting on linen over panel, 1.8 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Instituto de Visión, Bogotá, Colombia

Like much of Argote’s work, these paintings weave together histories of trade with narratives of migration. The avocado, dubbed ‘green gold’ in Latin America, has become a symbol of urban middle-class lifestyles in the Global North. Beyond an allusion to economic disparity, there is implicit tension in the paintings’ contrast between warm, unstable earthy tones, which will slowly transform through oxidation, and the visibly laborious process of their making.

Argote’s works on paper at Ballon Rouge are similarly meant to expire. The five large sheets are each printed with the handcart’s base on one side, and on the other, covered with birdseed the artist affixed to their surface with her feet; they will be destroyed after the run of the show. Itinerant harduci and birds in flight – twinned references to migration – may reveal how Argote herself feels as an artist so often working far from home. ‘I thought: this space that moves, it’s going to be my studio,’ she says of when she first saw the cart, which she haggled from a harduci on the street.

Carmen Argote, ‘Nutrition for a Better Life (Compre Chattara)’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Ballon Rouge Collective

Argote’s use of throwaway materials recalls arte povera, which the artist cites as a key influence. Her work also brings to mind Anna Maria Maiolino, whose work – while separated from Argote’s by nearly two generations and a radically different experience of migration – shares with hers an almost obsessive preoccupation with the affect and aesthetics of labour. Maiolino’s accumulations of hand-rolled, unfired clay aren’t so dissimilar to Argote’s avocado paintings. They are the unstable, intensely visceral products of a solitary and meditative process.

Carmen Argote: As Above, So Below, is on view at the New Museum, New York, until 5 January 2020.

Main image: Carmen Argote, Manéjese Con Cuidado, 2019, performance documentation. PAOS GDL, the Museo Taller José Clemente Orozco, Guadalajara, Mexico. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Itzel Hernández Gómez

Benoît Loiseau is a writer based primarily in London, UK, and a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Edinburgh. 

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