Carmen Argote — Utensils: Working Small
Carmen Argote works large. Her projects start from concrete things in the world, always gesturing toward big ideas, engaging full-sized spaces, immense labor, and detailed planning. In X-TRA’s pages, we see her mother’s collection of miniature items placed atop pages of a cookbook and printed to scale. I think of Carmen as downshifting to go up a hill, working small to climb the pinnacle. Utensils is, in no small part, devoted to Carmen’s mother and builds on her own familial memories and cultural experiences.
Utensils in the title leads us from the kitchen to the small tools the artist’s mother sourced from the craft store Michaels, when they still sold tools to create tiny objects for dollhouses. As a child, the word utensil was difficult for Carmen to remember and spell. She recalls writing utensil on her shoe, a tactile haptic action that allowed her to carry the word with her. The work contains several layers of personal recuperations of space, from the anonymous makers of the cake templates and miniature items through her mother to Carmen herself. Utensils: Working Small thus realigns feminist self-power by carving out spaces within spaces.
The miniatures and the cookbook pages are both extracted from their respective environments. Carmen started this project from those two sites, to talk about the creation of self and space. The first is a 1977 Mexican cookbook devoted to sculpted sugar cakes. Printed alongside the baked confections are simple abstract templates for shaping molded sugar. The second space is her mother’s room within her partner Gary’s suburban home in Long Beach, California, wherein she has replicated Carmen’s childhood home in compact form, carving out her bedroom as a sanctuary.
The mother’s collection of miniatures, shown isolated here, away from its original context within her bedroom, is still completely engaged with family. As the mother watched Carmen arrange them to make these images, she offered corresponding memories: “This was a party favor to commemorate your sister Alex’s baptism. I added another baby so that it could be you and your sister.” “I tried to make them as small as I could. The silver tiny cranes are from your wedding party. That long ago, imagine!” “I made a grouping of them, this was the smallest.
I made it originally for a mini altar for Dia De Los Muertos honoring my father.” “This was my first attempt at making jewelry. I wanted to make a collage with small objects.” Carmen remembers her mom making that piece of jewelry, her hands working with small tools, the hands laboring to craft.
Your thumbs have a place in the very first spread (pages 36–37) to hold these pages of X-TRA. Experience your body in relation to the cakes, to the bedroom, to the miniatures, to all that is crammed into and allowed air in this project.
Carmen Argote is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work focuses on the exploration of personal history through architecture and the spaces that she inhabits. Argote received her MFA from UCLA in 2007 and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2009. Argote has exhibited at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017); Denver Art Museum (2017); Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California (2017); Ballroom Marfa, Texas (2017); National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago (2015); MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles (2015); and Vincent Price Art Museum, Los Angeles (2013). Argote has shown at artist-run gal- leries and experimental spaces such as Panel LA (2017), Adjunct Positions (2015), and Human Resources (2014), and she was the Artist Lab Residency artist at 18th Street Art Center from January– March, 2018. She is currently participating in the 2018 Made in L.A. exhibition at the Hammer Museum. Argote is represented by Commonwealth and Council and Instituto de Vision.
Neha Choksi is an artist and a member of the editorial board of X-TRA.