Carmen Argote: watermelons, no catchies or bouncies at Commonwealth & Council

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The blacktop of the playground ignites a very specific memory to my individual history. I grew up mostly in a small solar powered house with a well that supplied my family’s water. Washing clothing was an issue for two reasons: one, because the machine sucked all the power from the rest of the house, often forcing us to start a noisy generator in order to finish a load of clothes; and two, the water that came from the well was straight from the earth, anything white would eventually become slightly off-white, then eventually beige and sooner or later would have to be discarded. This inevitably led me to wear mostly dark colors, or black; nothing that allowed for visible stains. Unfortunately, my school provided a uniform for Physical Education, white shirt and grey shorts, as an attempt to make us all look “the same”. Most kids enjoyed getting dirty during recess; I became an expert at participation without overexertion. Anything involving a ball and the blacktop meant dirty hands, so as I watched other kids casually (or aggressively) wipe the soot on and into their clothing knowing they could take them home to their parent’s magical machines and return the next day looking fresh and clean; I caught the ball at a distance, kept my hands slightly off to the sides of the material that threatened to expose my home life. A day when I didn’t have to take my uniform home to the washer was a successful day at recess.

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Carmen Argote’s Painting for an Exterior Wall presents the viewer with a simple Mondrianesque arrangement caked with a complex layer of Gutai. The stretched canvas itself is large, 6’ by 7’ with a yellow background; it exist(ed) as the only object in the bedroom sized room adjacent to the main space of Commonwealth and Council. One thick horizontal black line bisects the canvas. Three shapes divide the bottom portion, a three sided vertical rectangle flanked by two smaller equal sized rectangles, the contour pattern is reminiscent of a simple home, a front door and two windows. The layout however, is taken from Agote’s LAUSD elementary school handball court.

Carmen grew up in a blue quadruplex apartment owned by her grandmother directly across from Hoover Street Elementary, the school in which she was first introduced to the game of handball. At a young age however, in order to get a better education she was transferred to Brentwood Science Magnet. Taking the bus from Koreatown to the Westside would have its complications; school as a child is an extension of the home, so a 45 minute ride to other kids neighborhood was a big change from the few steps it used to take to get to class from her home on Francis Avenue. Familiarity was found on the playground. The pattern on the handball court in Brentwood was reminiscent of the pattern from her former school, and the pink eraser-like balls had the same smell. Eventually, Carmen would buy a ball of her own, adorning (to her mothers despair) the side walls of her family’s home with the same mark that now decades later, covers the yellow canvas.

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Painting for an Exterior Wall is more than an action painting, it is an embodiment of a memory. To create it, the artist must not only recollect her childhood, she must also relive it; shop for the right ball with the eraser-like smell; find a place, an alleyway contiguous to her home; and play. The wall (the court), which once served as a reminder of the artist’s familiar environment by saving the action’s impression must now cater to the artist’s new obsession, art. The wall that once exposed the child by preserving her action, is now left unscathed; the canvas acts not only as a surface to make an image on but also as a protective vest. Argote re-creates this memory with her sister Alex. They carry the canvas together from her studio, find a location nearby, and experience childhood together again as adults. Perhaps now the difference is the hyper-awareness of their actions, as they go back and forth, hitting the ball that gathers dirt from the ground and imprints itself on the painted design. Oh, how our bodies move differently when we were young; it used to be so easy when it was just a game. I’m left to wonder if they wiped their hands on their clothes after it was over. Seldom can we re-capture a moment simultaneously with someone else.

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All photos are by Craig Kirk and are courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth & Council.

Carmen Argote at Commonwealth & Council:

Carmen Argote, My Father’s Side of Home opens Saturday, November 15, at Human Resources (HRLA):


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