Empty house: Carmen Argote delves into family history for her latest exhibition
A few years ago, the Los Angeles-based, Mexican-born artist Carmen Argote was teaching ceramics to youth at LA's Inner City Arts, when she received a grant that allowed her to take some time away from her full-time job and focus on her photography.
‘I wanted to do something that was more in line with my practice, which requires time,’ says Argote, who has been making photographic, painting, and installation studies of architecture and interiors since 2010.
These have included everything from stretched canvas adaptations of handball courts at Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools and wooden tracings of the Schindler House to muslin installations re-interpreting homes her father, who studied architecture but never practiced, wanted to build in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico.
‘When we came to LA, he took jobs to pay the rent and survive. He was a truck driver, a crossing guard, all these different things, but he always had his drafting desk in the house. I never connected my interest in architecture to his drawings until recently, and I would gravitate towards the bird's eye view and his plans, but I never related it to my personal history until recently.'
These fascinations began with Mansión Magnolia, an 1890 stone manor in the historic district of Guadalajara that Argote's paternal grandmother inherited and converted into an events space.
‘I was thinking about the effect of neoclassical architecture on my father in my previous body of work and how the tall ceilings and doors give you a feeling of self-worth and self-importance. It builds you up and tells you who you are, and it builds up all these notions of class,’ says Argote. ‘It was always present in my life and my father's life. He never lived there, but my great aunts did, and they've been very present in the stories about the house.’
When Argote first visited the space in 2014 – her family had originally moved to Los Angeles when she was five – she considered Walter Benjamin's writings on architecture and how it was a force that was always acting upon human beings, and how the only real way to know a space was to live inside it until you could form a new understanding of the architecture to the point where you would know your way around in the dark. As Benjamin wrote in 1936, ‘Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather, by touch and sight.'
After her aunt agreed to let her live in the events space for three months — in a makeshift room that her grandmother and father once used as an office — she emerged with a series of photographs that will go on display this Saturday at the Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Venice, California.
Together, the images provide an intoxicating narrative about the personal and projected history of this inherited space that was intermittently inhabited by her family. It's a love letter to the myth of a city (and home) her father imagined but never actualised. There are images capturing a rainbow-coloured bouncy castle and stacks of cascading black and white chairs inside the home's grand neoclassical hall; haunting studies of empty refrigerators, abandoned kitchens and lonely sodas on modernist tables; meditations on the detritus (stacks of cups or piles of dirt) from the parties held inside the space; or simply apparitional blurs of Argote moving through the vast spaces like a spectre connecting these disparate points in space and time, modernism and the neoclassical.
’There's a lot of isolation involved. I didn't set out to make an installation, I took the camera because it was a way to document my cup of coffee, the towel that I used in the shower, the tiles that were there, it was a way of seeing things that were right in front of me that I might miss,’ says Argote, who built relationships with the staff, saw how they booked, prepared and executed the birthday parties, graduations, or eventos electronicos (ie raves) and then was left alone to witness the aftermath surrounded by the photos and spirits of her relatives.
She adds, ‘Nobody has lived there since my tias, so I felt this layering and continuation of our features, pathways, our ways of walking. The drive was to get to know the house and through knowing the house utilise this resource that had been so present in my life but that I only knew in fragments.’