Architecture defines us. The structures we inhabit, visit, dream about, or even resent constitute an integral element of individual and cultural understanding. Some people spend their lives moving from one place to the next, repeatedly trying to reproduce a sense of “home,” while others inherit family histories through the buildings passed down from one generation to the next. Architecture dictates both how people interact with a space and with each other, and exploring the physical makeup of our environments can often reveal surprising personal and social insights.
Los Angeles-based, Mexican-born artist Carmen Argote grew up visiting her ancestral home, Mansión Magnolia, an 1890s stone manor in Guadalajara owned by her great aunts, and later passed down to her grandmother. The place always existed as a symbol of her family’s desire to return to Mexico permanently. However, in recent years it had been converted from a family dwelling to an events space used for everything from kids’ birthday parties to raves. Argote lived for three months in an office refurnished as a makeshift bedroom, spending her days and nights wandering the mansion recalling her relatives’ stories and questioning the relationships between body and space, ornament and functionality, past and present, understanding these layered relationships through the architecture of the space.
The artist’s previous bodies of work primarily utilize architectural installations and the modification of physical space to examine notions of memory, place, home, and her family’s immigration experience. For her most recent series, Mansión Magnolia, exhibited at Shulamit Nazarian in Los Angeles, Argote’s exploration of space collapsed from three to two dimensions, as this series marks the artist first exhibition dedicated to photography. The fourteen photographs on view depict a space both eerily devoid of human bodies, yet saturated with references to them. Diffused light imbues the rooms with a preternatural glow that allows for superlative detail in tone, texture, and hue. The image compositions reveal Argote’s sculptural background, often highlighting the geometric symmetry of the domestic objects and classical architecture. Through her examination of the space and its contents, Argote creates a visual record of past and present fused in one contradictory moment. The sleek functionality of contemporary objects contrast the detailed craftsmanship of the original building design, illustrating the ways history is understood through texture and form.
The images act as more than mere documentation, however, as the incongruities become apparent between the grand building design and the temporary event rentals. Many objects enter the manor arranged in cuboid structures, a result of their transportation in truck cargo holds. The purely functional configurations transform into modernist sculpture in images such as Black Chairs (2016), in which hundreds of black chairs seem to float and vibrate in the center of a room, both echoing the black and white checkered floor tiles and referencing 20th century readymade art. In Brincolin (2016), the contrasting structures combine to produce a visual pun: a brightly colored inflatable castle sits in the central hall under an ornate chandelier and surrounded by Corinthian columns.
As with the castle lacking children to play on it, the absence of humans becomes a palpable feature connecting all of the photographs. Argote occupied the void created by her missing family members and acted as a kind of ghost: present, but able to move more or less unacknowledged by the staff or guests (once, she even joined a rave wearing nothing but her nightgown!). Always examining the link between her family’s past and Mansión Magnolia’s present, Argote made several photographs in which she attempted to reclaim agency in the space for herself. Through her residency, Argote began to understand the architecture as a place of isolation: the thick, high walls separated its inhabitants from the din of the city. More specifically, the building design effectively confined the women to the house (the female realm) from the street (the male realm). Argote’s photographs act as a way to perform the experience of women bound together by the surrounding walls. Argote utilized the camera’s capability to capture gestural movement in long exposures, producing a painterly effect. The images, which depict a haze of flesh-tone mist floating in empty rooms, act as a way for Argote to evoke the presence of her female relatives while simultaneously infusing the space with the record of her body.
Each component of Argote’s exploration of Mansión Magnolia presents a consideration of her family’s complex characters: a father forced to emigrate from his country, but always yearning to return; a group of sisters and cousins isolated from the outside world by beautifully adorned walls; a young woman attempting to discover what it means to be home. Myth binds Argote’s understanding of her personal history and that of her relatives. Mansión Magnolia was a place of mystery and fantasy for her as a girl. Now, as an adult, Argote’s return complicated her relationship with the mansion and her memory of it. Through her residency, performances, and image making, Argote created a new myth of her own, interwoven with her family’s stories and the strangers that cohabit the space. Integrating past and present, public and private, memory and reality, Mansión Magnolia seeks to find meaning in the innumerable contradictions of contemporary life.