Had anyone been able to visit Carmen Argote’s studio last spring and summer, they would have been hit by the strong scent of pepperoni pizza laced with notes of chocolate and peanut butter. Based in Los Angeles, Argote was busy making prints from the oils in pizza slices and RXBARs — minimalist-branded, seemingly healthy snack bars — for Glove Hand Dog, a three-venue solo show that opened in July at Commonwealth and Council, Clockshop, and Stairwell LA.
The spark of the project was an edition Argote had produced for the arts non-profit LACE, which got her thinking about the mechanics of “one surface touching another surface.” With the help of printmaker Eric Gero, Argote began making “prints” with RXBARs by placing them on sheets of Stonehenge paper — following Gero’s recommendation — until the natural nut oils in the bars leached out, leaving irregular grease stains that Argote outlined with crayon.
That the bars were capable of oozing was a surprise for Argote, given the product’s marketing as a super-clean “real food,” with simple ingredients listed on the front of each package in a no-nonsense font. “The oil transfer created this mark that revealed something that was harder to see behind the branding or system that it’s inhabiting,” she said, alluding to the classist and elitist world of health foods and the larger wellness industry, not to mention the abstraction of nature-derived nutrients into calories and recommended daily percentages.
Argote began incorporating oil stains from slices of Domino’s pizza, initially thinking they would provide a point of contrast to the bars. As she saw it, RXBARs are “healthy” while pizza is comfort food; the former is meant to be individually consumed on the go, the latter shared at leisure. But the proof was in the grease. “You’re told that these [foods] are opposites,” she said. “And then through using them, I was like, wow, these two things have a lot more in common than what we’re told.”
This was not the first time that Argote had worked with food. In previous projects, she has used avocado, guava leaves, lemon juice, and cochineal, an insect commonly ground into red dye for everything from artificial crab to maraschino cherries. She has recently tested out prints lifted from a bed of shaving cream drizzled with store-bought strawberry syrup.
“Why is it that I gravitate towards these materials?” she asked. “They’re hard to work with, sometimes they don’t dry, they’re ephemeral.” But foodstuffs are appealing precisely because of their volatility — the inevitable transformations they undergo as they oxidize, rot, molder, and disintegrate — as well as for their ability to succinctly articulate larger socioeconomic and political systems. For Argote, the RXBARs and pizza slices also draw the work of art closer to the body, generating “an awareness that, just like our bodies, the work has a lifespan.”
Argote said that when she started experimenting with RXBARs, she “found that the peanut variety” — a flavor simply called “Peanut Butter” — “offered the best stain.” When heat waves hit Los Angeles, she also began using the Peanut Butter Chocolate bar, for the added “marks” left by melting chocolate chunks.
2. Prang Crayons
Argote outlined the initial stain left by each RXBAR with a crayon, in part because “the crayon in many ways looks like the food itself.” She prefers Prang Crayons — which are made with soybean oil — because she “like[s] the way they glide.” Like a chalk outline at a crime scene, the crayon captures the stain at a certain moment, but the oils continue spreading uncontrolled through the paper’s fibers, generating multiple indices of time.
3. Domino’s Pizza
The idea to use pizza slices to create prints came to the artist on long walks in the city, during which she frequently encountered discarded, oil-stained pizza boxes. With fears of surface transmission looming large in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, she dared not take the boxes home, but instead took advantage of a Domino’s carryout special to order fresh pizza for printing. “I would always get the same kind of pizza,” she said. “I’d get pepperoni, extra cheese.” When the pizza inevitably turned stale and hard, Argote applied a heat gun to coax out a bit more fat from the pepperoni.
4. Hershey’s Syrup
Argote noticed that some of her outlined grease stains had an anthropomorphic quality — that they looked, in her words, like “creatures.” To play up the drama between creatures on the page, Argote layered one more food product onto some of her prints, inspired by the melting chocolate in her RXBARs: classic chocolate-flavored Hershey’s Syrup. She used a dropper to add a single globule of chocolate to their “eyes,” working vertically “so that gravity would extend the line” of the drip, making it appear as though they were crying.
5. Powdered graphite
After the works in Glove Hand Dog had already gone on view, Argote continued experimenting, applying powdered graphite to greasy pizza stains with a soft brush. “I started working with graphite because I wanted to find a way to demarcate the area of the stain instead of just the perimeters,” she said. “The grease stain of the pizza acted almost like a magnet for the powdered graphite,” capturing the oil bloom on day two or three. The visual effect was quite different from the crayon outlines. The silvery, dusted grease looked cosmic, “reaching,” in Argote’s imagination, “towards the celestial.”