Thoughts on Food Material

Carmen Argote

"Thoughts on Food Material" was published in Active Cultures’ Digest, Issue 06, September 2020.

Images: Carmen Argote, Me at the Market, 2020. Process documentation and installation views at Visual Arts Center, University of Texas at Austin, January 24 – March 6, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Carmen Argote, 2020. Protein bar oil transfer (process photo). Courtesy of the artist.


Carmen Argote is a Los Angeles-based artist, whose recent solo exhibitions have been held at Visual Arts Center, University of Texas, Austin (2020); New Museum, New York (2019); PAOS, Guadalajara, Mexico (2019); Ballon Rouge Collective, Istanbul, Turkey (2019) and New York (2018); Instituto de Vision, Bogota, Colombia (2018); Panel LA, Los Angeles (2017); and MAK Center for Art and Architecture (2015). Argote has been featured in group exhibitions at SculptureCenter, New York (2019); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2018); Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana (2017); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017); Ballroom Marfa, TX (2017); and Denver Art Museum, CO (2017). She is the recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2019); Artadia Los Angeles Award (2019); Rema Hort Mann Foundation Artist Community Engagement Grant (2015); and the California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists (2013).

Avocado Toast

I began to use food as a material in my work when I was in Bogotá, Colombia. I was thinking about systems of consumption and exportation. I was also thinking about the exploitation of the natural resources of Colombia, particularly with regards to the growing of the Hass variety of avocado in Latin America, specifically for US consumption.

It was also interesting that the avocado was the first patented fruit in the US. There were already so many groves of other avocado varieties in Colombia—with thinner skin that did not ship as well—which were cut down and replaced for the more shippable, thicker-skinned Hass.

Was there a different way of consuming and processing avocado?

Body and Dye

I would visit the herb markets in Bogotá, the place where herb vendors would nap on mounds of chamomile flowers and make soap from ash and earth. All the plants for sale had a connection to the body that I did not know about or really understand. I thought about processing at its most basic, and I thought about heating, and boiling, and cooking processes. I started to boil plants, avocado skins and bark, as a way to extract their color and understand them in a visual way. I used fabric as the surface to take those color extractions. This is how I came to use natural dyes as part of my process and practice.

The Alchemical

Learning more about the natural dye process brought me to learn about the use of tannins, of iron, of copper, and of shifting pH. I learned about surfaces and about shifting acidity or the alkalinity of surface or dye to manipulate color results. I learned about natural dye traditions and their relationship to site, land, body, and the spiritual relationship between these elements.

RXBARs: Going Going Gone
My initial interest in using the RXBARs came from a feeling of my own attraction to them and my consumption of this food. Their branding, the design of their packaging, their positioning among health foods and the transparency conveyed by listing the contents on the front of their bars compelled me to buy and consume them. In my mind, these RXBARs were something you could eat daily for health. Their font offered validity and the lifestyle was somehow connected to a notion of health and fitness. The idea that they contained oil was not a part of this imagining or of their consumption.

I was thinking about printmaking and surface.

I opened the packaging to reveal the slightly sticky yet firm 2 x 3 inch rectangle of compressed nutrients and placed it onto the paper surface. The oil left a mark that looked like language. I started to ask myself what this language was saying by arranging the bars like text. They would release their oil mark, and I would use a brown crayon to trace the shape. The brown crayon was like the color and texture of the bar, waxy. The oil would bloom past the initial delineation, unconstrained by the passing of time and the soaking of the oil into the paper fibers.

Paper Is Like Skin

The language was at first words, then sentences, then grew into forms, and finally into the creatures. These creatures revealed a sort of digestion of the ideas and the process. Psychological in their visual language, these intestine like expressions of thoughts characters symbols are a digestion of my embodied visual language as it expresses itself in relationship to working with this food material. I eat the bars often while processing, while drawing—literally digesting the material both in the mind and body. This is a compulsive impulse, sometimes uncontrolled craving to process the now oil-lessened rectangular food that has left its mark upon the paper surface. My relationship to food has changed during the making of this work, leaning to loss of control.

The work has revealed to me our systemic disembodiment, and how this disembodiment has affected even the way we think about the idea of food. Our relationship to food extends to the way we have become separated from our own bodies and from other bodies, from our notions of being whole human beings, and from being able to process other human beings as whole people around us.

Our obsession with profit, with capitalism, with progress as a forward pushing forceful shoving of our human-ness, has produced a systemic virus that has equated our self worth to our productivity of goods and services. We have lost our ability to digest nourishment of all kinds.

Our illusion of control within the system of consumption and capitalism depends on this disembodied selfhood to function.

I think of a yogurt as 80 calories, 14 grams of protein, and an apple is 98 calories. Blotting a pizza slice with a napkin removes 30-50 calories. 6 pizza oil transfers are 1,600 calories on the paper's surface.

Visual Language

In conversing with the work and seeing the visual language that emerged, I felt surprised by what I saw. I am not separate from this system, I have bought into it, consumed it, digested it, and also benefited from this capitalism. I have felt the effect of it on my own disembodied selfhood, my own desensitization from my body, from others, from my food. I recognize how I have desired and bought into this system, and the RXBAR for me became a way to reveal this to myself through a visual art-making process.

The digesting of our collective feeling now has helped me to deconstruct and understand the systems that I am in. It has offered me a visual processing of my present, so that I can change and construct myself again more whole.

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.