In her 2018 book “Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” Jacqueline Rose describes the process of bonding with her adopted daughter as “going through a reverse pregnancy, moving back in time and letting her in. Or rather, she felt it.” She claimed her place as she crawled into my body and into my bloodstream.”
“mothers” sits at the top of a stack of books selected and bound by art historian Mary McGuire, one of five artists Carmen Argote’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles. Stacks of them are arranged in the middle of the white room.
Hanging above the books is a strip of raw linen decorated with oak galls – scabs that fall from the trees Argote passes on her routine walks in her Boyle Heights neighborhood. She sewed the fabric in the shape of two touching ♀ female symbols, with the ends of the fabric roughly braided and knotted at the bottom. “The mind, the heart, the stomach – the integration of the self. That’s where the braid entertains itself,” says Argote. “I see braiding as an integration to make something stronger.”
In the Los Angeles artist’s installation “Carmen Argote: I Won’t Leave You, I See You, We Are Safe,” which focuses on family bonds, textiles represent mother and daughter—and the intertwining of their relationship. In particular, the exhibition deals with the connective tissue between generations and explores the inner emotional realms: Argote’s “comforting objects”, brightly painted baby-sized bundles of textile and organic materials gathered in close physical and emotional proximity (corn husks, palm fronds, her clothes and their house mats), rest on cradle-sized bases on the floor or are leaned against the wall throughout the room.
“Language can re-mother; there can be acceptance and recognition. The title of the show – I use these phrases to take care of my own inner child parts, partly around work and as a model therapy for internal family systems,” she says while holding “Communication Tools,” a calming object of one billowing bouquet of oak galls, like a sleeping infant in her arms.
“Doing the work is so relational and a little uncomfortable because I usually work alone,” she says.
But the involvement of employees, including McGuire; artist Cedric Tai; Argotes Gallerist, Young Chung of the Commonwealth and Council; REDCAT curator Daniela Lieja Quintanar; and her mother, artist and educator Carmen Vargas, “re-mothered and actually let me be present.”
The exhibition is expanded by Argote’s almost daily visits to the room, in which she writes notes and reflections on the walls in colored pencil between works. Argote points to the fresh eggs lined up in a row on the floor, below the work on the walls above. On each one she wrote the name of the hen who laid the egg. Their chickens are named after well-known artists, including Lee Lozano, Noah Purifoy and Bruce Conner.
“Taking care of the show also means having conversations with people, working here, living here and sharing the notes on the wall as part of the progress,” says Argote.
Reading Carl Jung’s theory of individualization, the development of self-realization, led her to see her seven chickens as a coherent being, always in communication with wild birds. Earlier parts of Argote’s practice were further informed by reading texts by thinkers Octavia Butler, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Angela Garbes.
A few weeks earlier I had seen Argote perform with Vargas in the installation. Mother and daughter engaged in a meditative, casual exchange, taking turns carefully tying and untying each other for nearly two hours with the jute rope traditionally used in their family’s Guadalajara region. The performance ended with Vargas Argote donning a traditional jute garment she had woven and playing a singing bowl for a brief sound bath.
“I feel very connected to her when we commit,” Vargas later says of this ritual. The techniques are gestures that bind mother to daughter, partner to partner, and they “can be very simple – just wrapping your hands and communicating with the rope,” Vargas adds. “It took us to a place where [Argote] was a little girl and I made her a dress.”
Vargas was born in Guadalajara and has lived in Los Angeles for four decades. Today he leads art workshops at MOLAA, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. Traveling back to Mexico, she learned about ethnography and indigenous ancestry, which led to an intense exchange of ideas between mother and daughter and to works that keep these creative traditions alive.
In addition to the jute garments that Vargas wove to dress Argote for the performance, the show also includes a simpler painting, “Pain Body,” done in what Argote describes as “original” oil paint. She has made textured collages of small bodies encased in notes that bluntly reveal her innermost thoughts and are made up of vivid components, including “Let the child speak, you are not late, how thin are the walls between” and “Mature Child (A Cosmic),” drawn with cochineal, a striking red pigment made from ground and crushed insects native to Mexico.
When ICA LA senior curator Amanda Sroka, of “I Won’t Let You Down,” visited Argote’s home studio for the first time, she said she “saw a work that was so immediately connected to what it means “Being human, with all of its messiness, discomfort, shame, fantasy, healing and play.”
“It’s interesting to see Carmen here every day, playing with the social contract of the museum experience,” she adds. “Normally you would expect to look at a piece of art, read the wall label and decide to either continue to engage or walk away, but in this case the presence of the artist changes that.”
Other works in this exhibition, all created in recent years, include selections from her “Gynecological Fantasy,” a series of bold, sparse line drawings of figures, together and alone, with limbs and torsos intertwined, applied thickly, coagulated oak gall ink, usually monochrome, on plain paper or linen; “Urine Cards,” abstract drawings of chaotic materials, including the artist’s material and iron, mixed together on yellowed paper; the “Protector” series with floating little characters. These are drawn using a medium that combines “gross but beautiful” overripe figs she found scattered on sidewalks, then pressed with colored pencil, iron powder and salt. Strawberry syrup and gessoed banana peel offer a bright, sticky-sweet contrast in some shades.
For Argote, circling these visual and process-based connections is a form of healing.
“I always made things with my mother, and for the women in my family for generations, making and creating has been a way to hold on to themselves in sometimes really difficult circumstances,” says Argote. “There is a kind of knowledge behind it. It protects our weakness.”
“Carmen Argote: I will not abandon you, I see you, we are safe”
Where: Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1717 E. 7th St.
When: Wednesday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m., Thursday 12 p.m. – 7 p.m., Friday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Until September 10th
The information: (213) 928-0833, email@example.com