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Carmen Argote: Mansión Magnolia at Shulamit Nazarian

Expressions of both individual psychology and grand family histories are easily found in the architecture of a past home. These two narratives are counterintuitive yet closely related. When a family invests in a house, apartment, or some shared space, its interiors, like one’s mind, can feel simultaneously claustrophobic and inexhaustibly complex, and revisiting a former home can bring up fraught confrontations with descendants and sentimentality.

Carmen Argote. Tías, 2016; archival inkjet print; 45 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Shulamit Nazarian.

Carmen Argote. Tias, 2016; archival inkjet print; 45 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Shulamit Nazarian.

The Los Angeles–based artist Carmen Argote has generated an immense body of work based on her return to her ancestral family mansion in Guadalajara, Mexico. From this oeuvre, she and curator Seth Curcio selected just over a dozen photographs, currently on view at Shulamit Nazarian. Her family’s stately neoclassical manor, Mansión Magnolia, was built in the late 1890s; it now primarily serves as a rental space for events, as well as law offices for one of her cousins, and contains no permanent residents. In the building, remnants of las tias, Argote’s grandmother’s aunts, the last people who lived in there, commingle with the incongruous leftovers of weddings, quinceañeras, and raves.

Only one photograph depicts the exterior of the building; the rest of the images give the sense of an unending interior, like Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion. Room after room contain the ad hoc constructions and structural improvisations from generations of repairs and additions. Plaster walls bisect huge spaces and fit snugly against preexisting columns. Mismatched tiles bear the residue of decades of leaks. Faded shadows of bygone furniture remain next to recently installed bathroom sinks. Ancient-looking vending machines sit beside older refrigerators, in front of dumbwaiters. Argote has captured the mansion in a state of never-ending transition. Like the house in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the building seems like it’s constantly expanding and receding in a struggle against the vagaries of time.

Carmen Argote. Brincolin, 2016; archival inkjet print; 58 x 80 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Shulamit Nazarian.

Carmen Argote. Brincolin, 2016; archival inkjet print; 58 x 80 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Shulamit Nazarian.

Several photographs contain the blurry smudge of Argote’s figure, moving too fast for the long exposure to capture. To create these phantoms, the artist descended staircases or rolled around on the floor. In Tias (2016), Argote conjures her relatives’ former presence with what seems to have been wild gesticulations in front of the camera, resulting in an eerie puff of beige smoke with a discrete shadow underneath. This apparition floats on top of an intricately tiled floor that recedes into an endless distance. Argote seems to haunt the space with an ephemerality akin to Ana Mendieta’s works.

Throughout, Argote has exhibited projects based on her ongoing interest in the architecture of home and Mansión Magnolia in particular, including hosting a sleepover at Human Resources. Part installation, part cooperative performance, the 2014 event included storytelling and tarot-card readings while participants were surrounded by the artist’s installation of fabric structures made of manta, a textile ubiquitous in Mexico. For the current show, she replaced the sense of humor and play of previous exhibitions with a mix of Victorian gothic mystery and 19th-century spirit photography.

Carmen Argote. Black Chairs, 2016; archival inkjet print; 58 x 80 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Shulamit Nazarian.

Carmen Argote. Black Chairs, 2016; archival inkjet print; 58 x 80 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Shulamit Nazarian.

Many other artists—including Mendieta, Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, and Bruce Nauman—have toyed with inflecting their photographs with the personal intonations of their bodies. Argote leans heavily on these practices, particularly Woodman’s. Her photographs feel most significant when they also contain the architectural investigations exemplified by sculptors like Rachel Whiteread and Gordon Matta-Clark. For the Turner Prize–winning sculpture House (1993), Whiteread poured a concrete cast of the interior of an East London house. Like Whiteread’s House, the works in Mansión Magnolia preserve the negative imprints of spaces, like the unrequited ghosts of a familial past. And like House, which was torn down within a year to make way for new business development, the interiors shown in Argote’s works are perpetually threatened by rampant capitalism.

It’s hard to say if Argote’s return to her family home is tragic, redemptive, or something else entirely. In her most compelling images, she cuts through a feeling of melancholia and summons the uncanny—in Sigmund Freud’s sense, a return to familiar things made strange through repression. The remainders of a series of parties as well as years of improvised repairs obscure whatever homelike qualities the mansion may have contained, as well as access to a family history that might have survived. Instead, a hazy urgency of generic celebrations saturates the space, represented by stacks of chairs, dance-floor panels, and a bounce house. Argote’s dual gesture through photography—of resurrecting ghosts and capturing the slow-motion obliteration of a family home through merchandising—allows viewers to share the sting Argote feels from the lances of her own nostalgia.

Carmen Argote: Mansión Magnolia is on view at Shulamit Nazarian in Los Angeles through May 28, 2016.

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