Exhibit | Carmen Argote Explores The In-Between Spaces of Familial Memories
Carmen Argote, “Brincolin”, (2016).
There is a misty sentimentalism nestled into every aspect of Carmen Argote’s art practice. For her solo exhibition Mansión Magnolia at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, curated by Seth Curcio, she traveled back to the mansión that her family owns in Guadalajara, Mexico, and took up residence there for a few months. While residing in this French-inspired neoclassical space built in 1890, she uses photography to examine the psychological tension between familial memory and present-day reality.
Formerly a domestic residence, Mansión Magnolia is now a commercial space that her aunts rent out for events. Her father had an idea that this place would eventually become a family home again, but that’s not at all what happened to it. In playing with this distance between fantasy and reality, Argote makes both physical and psychic spaces for herself in this in-between, casting light onto otherwise unseen crevices that offer clues about the class systems at work within the mansión.
Some of these glimpses into the lesser-seen aspects of the mansión include the aftermath of events, the day laborers’ cleaning supplies, the set-up equipment for events, and the exterior garden. “Black Chairs” (2016) is a visually hallucinatory shot of black chairs stacked high on top of a black-and-white tiled floor; the chairs stand at the point of what looks like a vortex, as if the chairs are floating.
In “Lavadero”, Argote takes a straight-on shot of the sinks that are used to wash dishes from events, indicating that everything is done by hand. In “Brincolin”, Argote photographs a children’s inflatable magic bouncy room that’s positioned in the middle of that same black-and-white tiled floor. Other images look more gently at the class systems within the mansión, such as “Puerta de Servicio”, where, if one looks closely, they notice that the food door to the kitchen is nearly blocked off by two drink coolers, positioned as if to hide the people that make the food. The photos demonstrate Argote’s skill at capturing psychologically charged spaces, much like the photographs of Jeff Wall.
Of course, these are just material objects that exist in the physical world. The show becomes more interesting when Argote inserts herself into different empty rooms as if she were a ghost in the space. In “Se metió por la azotea”, Argote documents herself descending the stairs, so that we see only her foot touching the floor but not any details of her nude body. Similarly, in “Tías” (2016), the viewer gets the sense of a bodily presence, an abstract figure captured after rolling around on a patterned floor, hinting at the fact that her aunts run the space itself, that they are the true occupants even though they are not physically there. In “Las Lindas”, she rolls on a black-and-white tiled floor until she is but a wisp of herself.
Argote achieves these gestural marks by using a slow exposure to shoot herself either rolling around or walking. As in her previous work, Argote works with the existing space — but in this project, she works inside rather than on the exterior, documenting the interiors of this place, and placing herself in it as both her father’s daughter and a visitor to a space that has transformed but nonetheless holds an important place in memory.
It’s not unusual for Argote to craft projects out of architectural spaces. For her previous show Houses he wanted to build at the home gallery Adjunct Positions (full disclosure: I live there), she covered the entire residential home with a giant sheet that combined architectural rubbings of the Adjunct Positions home and elements from her father’s architectural drawings. In doing so, she similarly created a sort of ghost homage to her father and the houses he fantasized building at various points in his life. This would suggest that perhaps her father is dead, but that’s not the case at all. When I asked Argote what he does, she said that he works in a government office in Guadalajara where he deals tangentially, but never directly, with space.