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From her great-aunt’s party venue, to her own home-studio, to Los Angeles’s Schindler House and new metro line: Carmen Argote is obsessed with space – her art burgeons with architectural elements and ideas of presence. These appeal to Carmen via elements of her upbringing: the aspirations, immigration, disconnect, and their emotional baggage.

Childhood memories of places are huge in her art, which she recognized upon creating her “first finished piece,” an installation titled 720 sq. ft.: Household Mutations, featuring the long, rectangular carpet she grew up with. Perhaps another connection between Carmen and spatial thinking is the commute she endured as a young Magnet school student: a brutal Los Angeles bus ride from Pico Union across Downtown to the Westside, each early morning and each afternoon, even through the burning buildings of LA’s 1992 Rodney King Uprising.

Carmen explains, “that’s my interest in moving through different kinds of spaces, moving through different kinds of economies – because that’s what I did and have always done.” This is true. When she and her sister were very young, her family moved from Guadalajara (Mexico) to Los Angeles. Her father had studied architecture in Mexico, hand-drawn a portfolio of beautiful houses that he dreamed of building, but the Los Angeles offices had shifted from drawings to AutoCAD, leaving her father working a series of odd jobs. “He just needed to support the family and make money,” Carmen says. “But those drawings really stayed with me.”

Besides inspiring, her obsession with architecture, her family’s story and the story of many other immigrants is one that Carmen consistently explores in her art. “What does it mean to leave a place and come to another place, and also to have lived in that place and have memories of it, like my father? And what does it mean for him to be over here... wanting that, and then going back and seeing that the city’s changed without him? And for me to be growing up with all these narratives, what does that do to my ideas of Guadalajara, how do I see the city differently, or do I even know the city? Where do I fit in or not outside of these narratives?”

Carmen professes that in America she was teased by classmates for her race, but accepted it as normal at the time because it was how things always were. Yet in Guadalajara, she also felt out of place, even performing simple tasks like ordering breakfast. “In LA, I’m used to: ‘Okay, can I get a Number Three?’ Everything written on the menu, this impersonal dynamic. Over in Guadalajara, it was: ‘How do you want your eggs? Do you want ham? What kind of ham?’ It’s a whole conversation. Every interaction is a lot more personal, and I became aware of my own anxiety.” Today in Los Angeles, she connects. “Back in LA, I’m Mexican, but I’m also very LA... my taste, my consumer habits – everything ends up being very LA.”

Through her artwork, Carmen articulates these deeply personal overtones – her own search for belonging, her parents’ translation of their Mexican heritage, and how these change across different settings. This brings her to architecture. “There are spaces in-between the spaces, and a lot of those are the spaces that we carry with us; architecture is very much separate from the structure. Although it’s informed by structure, architecture stays within us, our minds, and experiences.”

And to aspiring artists, Carmen declares, “continue to go where you want to go. Try not to see even your success as an endpoint, but as a beginning to new spaces you want to go. And work from something that’s real to you – it has to be sustainable. Can you do this for the rest of your life, and how? What are you after? What are you trying to say, and is it one thing, or is it a search? You ask yourself that over and over, and it changes as you continue to do.”

Lauren Lee
Kevin Tavangari

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