A pleasant, herb-like smell hits me as I enter the Visual Arts Center (VAC). The doors of the University of Texas gallery are propped open, and it has been raining all week. The humidity clings to my skin as I enter the air conditioning, and students hurry down the halls to class, their shoes squeaking on the sealed floors.
The scent is probably from cochineal, which Carmen Argote has used with great acumen in her installation “Me At Market.” Argote writes, “Cochineal is a substance that I’ve seen used in historical religious tapestries…. The reds of the cochineal dye composed a substantial part of the color palette for tapestries made in the 15th through 17th centuries. In looking at the color of the cochineal, I think about the Americas, its isolation from the rest of the world and its continued exploitation.”
And according to the press release, the Los Angeles-based artist “draws upon her immediate environment and its connection to systems of labor and consumption.” At the VAC, Argote uses two organic materials — cochineal dye and lemons. Materials such as these along with avocado, wine, and coffee reoccur in her practice because, as she writes, of their “ties to specific forms of labor, histories of violence and oppression, and colonialism.”
“Me At Market” sumptuously spreads out in the vaulted gallery. Yards of linen are cut and sewn in the shape of the courtyard’s footprint and hung on the wall. Uniform pockets are stitched by hand onto the fabric. Argote filled the pockets with the cochineal dye and lemon juice, then let the mixture drip down the wall. The effect is remarkable. The linen’s shape on the wall resembles the shadow of a person, their hands thrown up in surrender. The liquid bleeds down the stark white walls. Black and grey stains show the splash of the liquid as it hits the floor.
A segment of the pocketed linen runs all the way to the floor in the middle. There the color dips into deep red shades and connects to a rug-like part of the installation. The physical connection of the wall and floor piece contrive a connection in the making of the two parts, but the distance between the splash stains and the bright puddles settle into an alluring confusion. Yellow, white, black, orange, and red blossoms of dye glisten on the floor as if it might still be wet. The bright abstraction harkens to woven rugs and joyously springs from the blood-stained linen that runs up the wall.
The beauty of the installations in the vaulted gallery of the VAC are often best admired from the second-floor galleries, and Argote’s installation does not disappoint. From that vantage point, the color of the floor section contrasts between the grey of the oil paper and the brightness of the dyes are incredibly pleasurable to the eye. It looks like a paint spill someone ran a brush through.
From above, it also is more noticeable that one side of the oiled paper is cut into a subtle point and the opposite end cut straight. The oiled paper points to the white, east wall as a contrast. The viewer’s eye gets a moment of pause before being drawn to a long piece of paper that runs from the second floor banister to the ground. On the paper, a stream of black ink or paint seems to flow from the upper left side of the paper, down and into a puddle that threatens to fill the page.
Argote’s “Me At Market” reminded me that a successful, large-scale installation can take your breath away, entice you, and make you stop in your tracks. The work is pleasing, startling, and, if you want, provides more for you to consider. And in today’s world full of worry, negativity, and evil, it was special to me to stop and take in something simply wondrous.
But don’t just run upstairs to see an alternate view of “Me At Market.” The exhibition “Drunk Hawking” includes 30 works by Houston-based Lisa Lapinski. The sheer number of art objects plays with the exhibition title, as if the artist threw her art into a suitcase and carried them up to Austin. Lapinski’s works are disarming, charming, and wryly humorous.
“Little My Chair 2” greets viewers as they enter “Drunk Hawking” and wander toward the wall text to settle themselves. You step around the child-sized chair just as you would a wandering toddler. The front two legs are fitted with two black boots and a bun of hair rises up above the cane backing. I misread the description of the work and my mind filled in the gaps: “found chair in collection of a lady in Los Angeles.” I wondered who would want such a chair, the cane anonymizing the child’s face, and the condescending action of sitting on someone smaller than you.
A sprawling sculptural collage of furniture parts, “Nightstand,” suggests the intimacy of covertly exploring someone’s nightstand with its abundance of drawers that are flung open. What kind of lamp might they prefer? What pills might be in the drawer? How large a stack of books looms over their sleep, and what paintings have been chosen to see as the first and last thing every day?
“Holly Hobby Lobby Bow” depicts a life-sized bow, which to me conveyed an ode to ‘90s clipart. I later read that it pays tribute to a character, Holly Hobbie, from the ‘60s. This unknowing, learning, and personalized reading of the work feels lauded, encouraged, and celebrated throughout Lapinski’s sculptures. I laughed at the nine panels that make up “Successful Schizophrenia,” thinking, that, yes, this cultural obsession with success does drive you into hearing voices in your head.
Several works in the show use tobacco and still emit the smell of the plant. In “Untitled (Trieste)” and “Marker,” Lapinski shapes rats that form the base to columns. And “Tobacco Camel” directly references the cigarette brand’s camel standing on top of a wooden shipping crate. Handwritten notes on the crate caution DO NOT TIP, otherwise the camel would be lost. The scent of the tobacco is strangely comforting, even though I have never been a smoker.
Three large paintings are framed in white ceramic tiles — “Th th th th th Snow White (Blue),” “Th th th th th Snow White (Magenta),” and “Th th th th th Snow White (Green)” — borrow illustrated advertisement-like images of women in bathing suits, with the tiles an allusion to lounging alongside a hotel pool.
There is a kind of work for every type of art lover in the “Drunk Hawking.” Between her prints, photographs, sculpture, and installations, Lapinski extends her confidence through her work. She signs off with a small neon rainbow behind a sheet of plexiglass and cane. It suggests that the artist would protect our childhood or progressive desires if she could — if it were as easy as raising up a sheet of plexi.
“Carmen Agote: Me at Market” and “Lisa Lapinski: Drunk Hawking” continue through March 6 at UT Visual Art Center, utvac.org.