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In Review | Carmen Argote: Making Order Out of Sisterly Chaos

L.A. artist Carmen Argote celebrates her sibling by making stuff inspired by her stuff.

Alicia Elerby Alicia Eler
All images courtesy of Carmen Argote and Commonwealth + Council.

The sister bond goes deep. It’s something that L.A.-based artist Carmen Argote knows from the literal inside out. In her newest solo exhibition, Alex’s Room, at Commonwealth & Council Gallery, Carmen focuses on her sister, Alex. Family is an ongoing theme for Carmen. Her father was the subject of her last two solo exhibitions at Adjunct Positions and Shulamit Nazarin, and now her creative spotlight turns to her sister. On opening night, Carmen and her sister Alex wore matching yellow-and-beige patterned dresses and seemed to be joined at the hip. Carmen spoke with a fervor in her voice when she explained the work on hand; truly, it’s thrilling to have a solo exhibition, but to make art that helps to create a deeper bond with a family member adds an extra energy to the work.

The works that emerge in this show offer a curated portrait of Alex as Carmen sees her, using her possessions and interior surroundings as a mirror of her identity construction. For the show, Carmen approached her sister Alex, asking if she could come hang out at her place and document her. Alex lives in a single-room, low-income unit in Boyle Heights that’s stuffed to the gills with her possessions, which seems to border on hoarding. Carmen threw herself into Alex’s room, became fascinated with it, and then made art as she was crawling out and around her belongings. The sisters love each other. The sisters love their stuff. Ultimately, the collaborative exploration of Alex’s stuff brings the two of them closer together.

Installation view of "Everything is in its place, but Everything is everywhere" (2016), video + "Printed Pillows"

Installation view of “Everything is in its place, but Everything is everywhere” (2016), video + “Printed Pillows”.

In a playful gesture, Carmen builds a series of miniature theaters, including “Little Sister Theater,” “Pony Theater,” “Classic Theater” and “Candlewood Theater,” each arranged with objects she found in Alex’s room, from a Luna bar to a copy of Camus’ The Stranger. On these miniature stages, Carmen mixes jewelry, books, photographs, stickers, memorabilia, and debris. In her series of light jet prints, Carmen takes a different approach to seeing her sister and herself; she prints the same image seven times, layering it on top and sideways in order to make it three-dimensional.

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In “Alex with Wampa” (2014), we see Alex holding Wampa, a Persian cat that Carmen they found many years ago in Los Angeles’ K-Town neighborhood. Carmen uses a similar effect in “Alex Having Tea.” In a less person-focused piece, “Objects that fit on a sheet of paper,” Carmen makes a stop-motion animation on an iPad of things she finds at Alex’s house. In “Object Masks” she creates masks inspired by objects she’s found. In this exhibition, we are presented with so many intimate portraits and portrayals of Alex.

Installation view of "Object Masks" (2016). Paper mache, ribbon 36 elements; dimensions variable

Installation view of “Object Masks” (2016).

Sibling relationships can develop a specific type of obsessive closeness. The New York-based artist Carrie Schneider investigated the sibling bond in her 2006-2007 series “Derelict Self” where she got uncomfortably close to her brother, exploring their relationship through the idea of mimicry and a type of symbiosis apparent in twin relationships. Schneider’s work on this subject brought about a subtle creepiness, causing many viewers to question the deeper emotional bonds between siblings.

Carmen’s show has a similar effect on viewers. But because this exhibition feels like the beginning of a new sisterly exploration, it was hard to really tell what was happening between Carmen and her sister. The work in this show is like taking a batch of muffins out of the oven while they’re mid-bake. They are beautiful and raw, gushy, not perfectly edible or ready to distribute. It seems as if she likes them that way, their crumbs not yet hardened. For now, it’s mostly batter.

"Dingbat Theater" (2016). Paper mache, objects Approx. 25 x 22 1⁄2 x 19 1⁄2

“Dingbat Theater” (2016).

Alex’s Room at Commonwealth & Council Gallery (3006 W 7th Street, Suite 220, Los Angeles, 90005), runs through July 16.