In 2019, the New Museum presented “As Above, So Below,” the first solo museum exhibition by Mexican-American artist Carmen Argote.
The first impression of the exhibition registered from outside the Museum’s entrance on Bowery; red and blue lights were visible from the street, casting their glow from the gallery in the back of the lobby’s interior.1 The work, As Above, So Below (2019), from which the exhibition took its title, comprised LED string lights outlining the individual glass panels that separate the lobby and café from the gallery space, framing its contents like an industrial curio. With the LEDs, Argote borrowed from the visual vocabulary of the East Harlem bodegas that flanked her temporary workspace during a month-long residency preceding the exhibition. In Harlem, these “deli lights,” as the artist refers to them, project across the visual cacophony of street life, providing a focal point and frame for each shop’s wares. Argote, whose practice is rooted in processes that traverse spaces and systems, adopted this mode of display as a means of grounding the exhibition—which was largely made up of recent works produced during two consecutive residencies in Guadelajara—in its New York context.2
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors encountered Exprimidos (2019), an installation arrayed at ground level. Exprimidos, which translates to “pressed” or “pressed out,” was also created while Argote was in residence in East Harlem and, similar to As Above, So Below, draws on spatial and material elements of El Barrio, as the area is colloquially known. Arranged in rows reminiscent of New York’s street grid, each unit combines a wooden tortilla press with a sponge soaked in an avocado and iron dye and draped with a length of raw silk. The title refers to the pressing, absorption, and release of the dye, and its consequent staining of the silk, evinced in a concatenation of discrete parallel units splayed open for the viewer. By laying bare her own process and its incorporation of local materials, Argote alludes to localized forms of production and labor, and the ways in which that labor is extracted from local residents.
Argote’s appropriation of urban vernacular forms is in keeping with her interest in the spatial contours, visual elements, activities, and inhabitants of the surroundings in which she works. Many of the works on view utilized materials native to the environments in which they were created, making reference to discrete ecosystems that nonetheless contain echoes of globalized processes.
Argote describes this synthesis of external stimuli and emotional valences as a form of inhabiting, an investigation of how her body converses with specificities of site. The artist describes her practice as having developed in response to her parents’ experience as immigrants and her own transitory sense of home resulting from her father’s feelings of displacement.3 Each work contains traces of the artist’s navigations across physical space and personal memory, often informed by her dual nationality.
The exhibition’s title, “As Above, So Below,” conveys this awareness of existing between worlds. Drawing from the cosmology of Tarot, Argote takes up the mantle of the artist as “Magician,” a figure situated between planes, able to reveal truths from above and below the surface. Argote’s process is concerned with exploring this terrain through the actions and material processes she uses in her works. The planar orientation that conceptually situates the works in the exhibition is also literal—the works installed in the gallery were all created on the floor, through gestures involving contact with the ground. After developing the compositions through various lateral and downward pressing movements, Argote flipped her paintings and works on paper upright to face the viewer, presenting the terrestrial plane at eye level for contemplation.4
Although her work from this period drew comparisons to Land artists’ use of the natural environment and documentary practices, Mendieta’s earth/body sculptures utilized a very different theoretical framework, one that took on personal and historical dimensions, which she described in an unpublished statement dating from 1981:
I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source. Through my earth/body sculptures, I become one with the earth… . I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body. This obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is really the reactivation of primeval beliefs … [in] an omnipresent female force, the after-image of being encompassed within the womb, is a manifestation of my thirst for being.13
While passionately connecting the earth/body works to her own longing for her homeland, the statement also aligns Mendieta’s practices with a primordial past, situating them outside of the cultural, historical, and sociopolitical structures that had forced her into exile. Her use of contemporary media and feminist strategies emphasizing the body served to reify symbols and spiritual practices that circumvented and predated colonialism, forging alternative systems of meaning outside those dominant structures.
For Mendieta, the condition of alterity was an existential one. In the introductory catalogue essay for Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States (1980), Mendieta took ownership of “Third World,” a term often applied disparagingly to women artists from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, preferring the exclusion of white patriarchal society, and its foil in the American feminist movement of the 1960’s and ’70s, to complicity in colonialism, racism and exploitation. “Do we exist?,” asks Mendieta. “To question our cultures is to question our own existence, our human reality. To confront this fact means to acquire an awareness of ourselves. This in turn becomes a search, a questioning of who we are and how we will realize ourselves.”14
Though distinct in their approaches, both Mendieta and Agote’s use of natural materials and the body provide a means of searching through spaces within and beyond the dominant systems structuring existence, conjuring dimensions of identity and lived experience that might otherwise remain invisible. Informed by their respective dual nationalities, each artist’s practice explores notions of self, belonging, and home by employing improvised and embodied strategies to wield critical observations of their surroundings, while invoking an intimate emotional core. Guided by curious intellect and an attraction to mystical cosmologies, both Mendieta and Argote produced works that draw on specificities of place yet, nonetheless, hint at the universal or divine. In tracing their singular traversals of intersecting worlds and temporalities, and navigations within physical environments and social structures, these women forged powerful connections through site, material, and presence.
Archivist, New Museum of Contemporary Art
Published February 19, 2020