Stepping inside an artist’s studio, like going to a really well-curated retrospective, is an opportunity to get inside an artist’s head and connect the dots between their various finished pieces. I love the process of asking a few starting questions, and then listening as the artist gradually leads you through the paths of his or her interior landscape. Sometimes, if I get lucky and ask about the right piece in the right way, I find myself talking to someone who is sharing not only the quirky or obsessive thoughts that drive their art making, but also revealing some of their most heartfelt convictions and emotions.
There are critics who claim not to care what the artist says about their own work, but I disagree with this stance. It’s not that I think talking to the artist is necessary to have an experience with a piece–presumably the necessary ideas are present within the artwork itself—but a conversation with the artist can expand my own understanding so that I am no longer interpreting a piece from within the limits of my own experience. Through this process I can learn something new—about the world, about myself—rather than simply having my existing opinions reflected back to me. I was lucky enough to have two such elucidating studio visits recently with artists Claire Baker and Carmen Argote.
Certainly I would have appreciated Claire Baker’s paintings had I stumbled upon them in a gallery, but getting a glimpse into the evolution of her approach and the waterfall of cascading debris that she uses for sketches, helped me see them with more clarity and depth. Last year Baker spent some time in China, and the calligraphic influence is clear in her work. In classical Chinese paintings, the way the clouds intersect with a mountain can make the mountain look weightless. This desire to shift the perception of scale and mass is clear in the quality of line and motion in Baker’s paintings. At one point in our conversation she raised the question: “What would it mean to learn to jump over your own shadow?” The idea of acknowledging and navigating your personal darkness, made a lot of sense when standing in front of Baker’s moments of tightly controlled chaos.
While Baker’s studio was focused around a single body of work, Carmen Argote’s was bursting with projects in various stages of development and completion. Among the menagerie of materials and approaches, a through-line of interests emerged: the relationship between physical structures and the emotional residues that haunt their periphery; ways to make tangible forces visible; a deep fascination with recent history grounded in an attraction to contemporary materials and detritus.
Crouched in the back corner, behind a small army of intriguing Giovanni Anselmo inspired sculptures and an array of experiments with chicken wire and magnets, stood a half-way erected canopy–the kind seen at every swap meet, flea market and craft fare in LA–that Argote had completely gold leafed. It looked a little bit like a prop for a Sci-Fi B movie (a giant mechanical insect or flimsy alien aircraft) or a flouncy 80s prom dress caught on a fence.
The canopy is a modern equivalent of sticking your flag in the ground—a way to stake your claim at a piece of economic territory. Like the elusive golden ring that the kids jump for in Catcher in the Rye, the golden canopy in its semi-impotent state hovers between hope and defeat, the American dream and the American economic disaster. It seems a particularly fitting metaphor for the emerging artist’s life: a constant cycle of elation and deflation, professional hope and monetary struggle. The gold sparkle is seductive, and it is not until you get up really close that you notice the gold leaf flaking off. But at that point your face is bathed in a warm golden light, far too pleasant to be abandoned.
Argote’s next project will explore the history of Selig zoo, an amusement park/zoo, founded with movie industry money, that never quite found its identity. I look forward to seeing how Argote uses this relatively unknown, but quintessentially L.A., slice of history to re-frame our present.