Jorge Pardo: A World Of His Own

Tecoh, the artist’s most ambitious project to date, is equal parts house, sculpture, and utopia.

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The central room in Tecoh’s main house.

Jorge Pardo: A World Of His Own

Tecoh, the artist’s most ambitious project to date, is equal parts house, sculpture, and utopia.

Jorge Pardo had never studied design, trained as an architect, or built a house when he undertook the creation of his first home on a hill high above downtown Los Angeles. In 1993, having been invited to present an exhibition at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), the then 30-year-old Cuban-born artist proposed instead that he would build his own house, six miles away, and exhibit it as a work of art. A horseshoe-shaped single-story redwood structure that curled in on itself, Pardo’s 4166 Sea View Lane was closed to the street but open in the back, with windows offering views of the sea, the other rooms, and the landscaped courtyard. Every element—the lamps, furniture, tiles, garden, and kitchen cabinets—was designed by Pardo. For five weeks in 1998, five years after the initial commission, visitors were led on tours by docents in a kind of play on the real estate agent/client tango. Inside, the artist had installed his 110 hand-blown-glass lights, borrowed for the occasion from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Netherlands. When the show closed, Pardo moved in.

Jorge Pardo, Tecoh

Jorge Pardo sits beneath one of Tecoh’s Indian laurel trees.

His home was the first of his works to grab the art world’s attention, though certainly not the last to confound viewers and critics. Was it art? Design? Design art? Architecture? Was Pardo scamming the museum to get a free place to live, as one of its board members first wondered?

To Pardo, 4166 Sea View Lane was a sculpture that also happened to function as a residence—one that questioned traditional definitions about art, where we expect to find it, and where we draw the line. Using design, architecture, painting, and sculpture to his own artistic ends, he has long made functional “sculptures”—from a pier on a lake in Münster, Germany, and a beach house in Puerto Rico to a sailboat, bar, and countless biomorphic lamps, his favorite form. Pardo’s art is useful: His lamps provide light but are also freestanding objects that change the viewer’s experience of the space around them the moment they are activated. »

“What I do is shape space and play with the history that forms people’s sense of expectation,” Pardo says. “I don’t think art is not functional, for instance. I mean, a fucking painting is functional. How could it not be? People hang it on the wall. You can trade it. It’s like money. But historical tradition says paintings are not functional.” Utility, however, is not his primary objective. Instead, he is interested in blurring boundaries between art, life, and all of the media he employs so that we can never be quite certain where the artwork begins or ends or what, precisely, it comprises.

Nowhere is that approach brought into sharper relief than at Tecoh, the sprawling series of buildings, structures, pools, and gardens that has consumed Pardo for the past six years. It lies on 740 acres deep in the northern Yucatán jungle, on the ruins of a 17th-century hacienda that made rope until synthetics wiped out the global market for agave fiber and plunged the surrounding villages into decline. Here, Pardo has combined Mayan culture and modern design, local craftsmanship and computer-generated technology, natural landscapes and fantastical interiors to produce a suite of kaleidoscopic experiences.

“It actually doesn’t have a beginning point,” he tells me as he leads me on a tour of the property one scorching afternoon in July, pausing now and then to savor the sense of dislocation his layout provokes in me. We amble up and down rocky paths buffered by lush vegetation, past lily ponds, thatched huts, plants resembling primeval birds, and massive trees with coiling branches. You suspect that you’ve passed through a portal into an unnameable world. Giant stepping stones laid out on a path of shallow water line the way to an outer building. As we enter, Pardo flicks a switch to reveal dozens of colored lamps suspended, like phosphorescent sea creatures, at varying heights from the orange ceiling and rows of hammocks above a floor tiled in brilliant blue. At every turn there is something to provoke the eye and unmoor the visitor. A terrarium on the bottom of a nearby swimming pool looks like a shimmering oval when you peer over it, but underwater, a swimmer can see plants growing beneath the glass. “It’s like a procession you go through,” Pardo says. “And there’s this sort of negotiation between the buildings and the place and the jungle.”

At 50, Pardo is genial, opinionated, and burly, with a tangle of wiry brown curls and a bushy gray beard that gives him the appearance of a satyr—or Father Christmas. He laughs easily and talks quickly, with a rapid-fire delivery that reflects his swiftness of mind. His friend Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), calls him “a strange blend. He’s easygoing and a contrarian. There isn’t much he’s satisfied with.” But when it comes to his clothes, he’s totally laissez-faire: Today he’s dressed in flip-flops, a lavender linen shirt soaked through with sweat, and cotton pants in the bright shade of orange that runs through much of Tecoh.

Tecoh, Mexico

Rigami-shaped light wells in the ceiling of the main house.

The commission to reimagine Tecoh came to Pardo from the Mexican banking billionaire Roberto Hernández and his wife, Claudia Madrazo, who for some time had been buying and preserving haciendas in the Yucatán, with the goal of protecting Mayan culture. Eager to work with an artist, they met Pardo at the suggestion of Govan and his former Dia Art Foundation colleague Lynne Cooke, until recently the director of the Reina Sofía National Art Museum in Madrid. Both Govan and Cooke had collaborated closely with Pardo at Dia, when he redesigned the ground floor of the institution’s building in New York’s Chelsea in 2000 with multicolored tiles. Later, as discussions with Hernández and Madrazo got under way, Govan invited Pardo to install and redesign LACMA’s Latin American Galleries.

Despite their enthusiasm for Pardo’s ideas, his patrons, recalls Govan, “had no idea what they were getting into. They were trying to create some jobs and invest in the landscape.” After touring several properties, Pardo chose Tecoh because only a facade and a lean-to remained. There was a vestige of the period and place but not enough to be restored, “so he didn’t feel like he was wrecking an intact historic site,” Govan says.

The artist was given carte blanche—there was no agenda and no blueprint. Hernández and Madrazo already had a home in the area and had converted many others into hotels, to encourage tourism. (They also commissioned two works from James Turrell: an amphitheater and lighting installation in an ancient cenote, and a Mayan-inspired stepped pyramid, both in the Yucatán.) As Madrazo saw it, the idea of living “inside a work of art and living a work as it was unfolding” was a fundamental part of the journey. “I’m obsessed with exploring the relationship between life, art, consciousness, and awareness,” she says. “And definitely, in his own way, Jorge ponders these questions as well.”

Pardo built all of the components of the site, one at a time. “It was this kind of perpetual riffing off things,” he says. Unlike an architect, who first makes a model based on a specific set of needs (three bedrooms, a central kitchen, a pool that looks just like this), Pardo worked as a sculptor, intuiting how things might unfold as he created a total artwork that draws on everything he knows how to do. Inside the main room of the central building, appointed with his colorful geometric benches, glazed ceramic tiles, and overhead lamps, the jungle appears to be reaching through the open doors and windows. The philodendron-patterned mural on the walls is clearly inspired by the surroundings, but you have to get up close to see what it is. “Outside, it doesn’t really register,” Pardo says. Most striking is the three-dimensional ceiling, which brings to mind an origami sculpture because of the way that Pardo has carved it into pyramid-shaped light wells to let in light from different vantage points—and to reference the pyramids in nearby villages.

Walk up the spiral staircase out front, however, and your sense of scale alters dramatically: The ceiling you were just admiring is now the roof of a sculpture garden in which those same light wells look like strange pods plunked down from space. In the distance, you spy a smokestack shooting out of the jungle that Pardo has painted bright white with red flowers. Now your eye is directed over the tops of the trees, and you feel tiny in the vast expanse. “His entire body of work lives on questions and reconsiders definitions,” Govan says. “It’s sculpture, but it also has a philosophical dimension. There’s this kind of planned ambiguity, so that you always have shifting viewpoints about what you’re seeing.”

“I like when things collapse into one another,” Pardo tells me as he smokes one of the many American Spirit cigarettes he pulls from his shirt pocket. “Through that kind of jolt, you have to enter space and perception in a different way. I forget things a lot. I find a certain comfort in forgetting. You’re just kind of floating and looking at the world.”

Orange Room, Tecoh

Exterior of the Orange Room, from the garden.

As long as Pardo can remember, he has been making things. Born in Havana in 1963, he moved with his family to Chicago when he was 6 and grew up in a working-class Spanish-speaking household on the city’s North Side. His father was employed at a staple factory; his mother was a bookkeeper; and his older brother became a mailman, a job he kept for 30 years. Their social life revolved around other Cuban families. Pardo loved to tinker: He had his own handsaw and recalls remodeling his parent’s basement. But when he went to the University of Illinois (the sole member of his family to attend college), it was to study biology. He turned to art only by chance, after he took a painting course for fun and his teacher, seeing what Pardo calls “my ambition to try things,” advised him to change direction and helped him find his way to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “I had no idea being an artist was a profession,” Pardo, a 2010 MacArthur “genius” fellowship recipient, recalls. At Pasadena, the anarchic conceptualist Mike Kelley was one of his advisers, though, Pardo says now, his work did nothing for him. “I’m not interested in an aesthetic counterculture,” Pardo says. “The only way things operate in a Mike Kelley is in a deep suspension of disbelief. I’m interested in things that I can really lose myself in—and lose others in.” For his second show, in 1990, at the pioneering Los Angeles gallery Thomas Solomon’s Garage, Pardo exhibited handyman tools he had tweaked—among them an altered wrench and a ladder with one leg made of a rare African wood.

Ask Pardo about his influences and he’ll talk about classic films and Los Angeles architecture. Rudolph Schindler is his god. “He always seemed to consider the problem of building for a specific site in very unorthodox ways, so architectural form gets messed with pretty thoroughly,” he says of Schindler’s modernist houses, which were groundbreaking in the way their flowing interiors opened up to their surroundings. “L.A. architecture is very influential for me because it’s the most intense and real cultural production the city has.”

These days, Pardo employs a staff of 11, including a chef, since shared meals and good wines are at the heart of any Pardo undertaking. He used to construct everything himself, but now he delegates, though he always remains involved. “I like to know how things work, and I think everything interesting comes from figuring it out. You think with your hands too. I’m not one of those artists who put ideas in a notebook and send them off to some crazy fabricator in Brooklyn.” Pardo sketches and manipulates forms using computer-aided design; for Tecoh, he worked in tandem with his team and local craftsmen. Many of his works are made by machine and finished by hand, though he moves back and forth between digital and analog.

As the Tecoh project evolved, Pardo flew regularly between Los Angeles and Mérida, piloting his own plane, a Cirrus SR22. (He has since bought a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron and plans, of course, to build his own.) He first stumbled on the sleepy Yucatán capital in 2000, while on honeymoon with his now ex-wife. Soon he was returning frequently. In 2003 he started on a house-cum-artwork in Mérida’s historic center, a commission from the now defunct London gallery Haunch of Venison. Pardo recently relocated from Los Angeles to Mérida with his girlfriend, Milena Muzquiz, a Mexican-born singer and artist best known for her performances with the art band Los Super Elegantes, and her 4-year-old son. (Pardo also has an 11-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in New York.) Lately, Mérida, with its last-frontier ambience and pastel colonial mansions, has become a magnet for artists, designers, and adventurers looking to salvage inexpensive haciendas. The chef Jeremiah Tower is a resident, as are Pardo’s close friends César and Mima Reyes, contemporary art collectors and fellow foodies from Puerto Rico for whom he designed a house down the block from his. (The couple also own a beach house Pardo made for them in 2005 in Naguabo Playa, Puerto Rico.)

Paradoxically, now that Pardo lives in Mérida (he is building a new complex to house a home and studios for both him and Muzquiz), his next marquee project will take him back to Los Angeles at least once a month. He’s just beginning an art compound for the publisher Benedikt Taschen on 200 acres in Malibu. Taschen and his wife, Lauren, visited Tecoh last Christmas, Pardo tells me, and “really liked the vibe, but obviously it’s going to be a very different environment.” I can’t help but ask if he is conceiving the Taschen commission as a sculpture. “I think I’m kind of screwed,” he says, laughing. “If I make a house, people are always going to ask, ‘Is it an artwork?’ ” In the meantime, he’s hoping to fabricate a houseboat for his solo show next February at the Petzel Gallery in New York. He was still thinking that one through and wondering if he could float it in some kind of pool. “I always start with the pragmatic,” he says. “ It’s not just some stupid fantasy. At this point, it’s 12 feet wide and 40 feet long. It’s got these kind of decks that pop out. But soon I’ll start thinking about how to make it.”

He recognizes that few are going to see what he has pulled off at Tecoh. Not only are the owners “obsessed with their privacy,” but Tecoh, about an hour’s drive from Mérida, “is in the middle of freaking nowhere,” Pardo notes with irony. Hernández and Madrazo visit Tecoh and have used it for scholarly confabs, though “when we talk about the project, it’s still like ‘What the hell is it?’ I don’t know what it is. And they don’t either. What’s most interesting to me was that they could sustain that kind of open-­endedness for so long. At the end of the day, it’s a private home because they own it, though they don’t live here,” he adds.

Given such a vast canvas, I ask how he knew when he was done. “There was enough critical mass, so I thought, We should probably bring it to a wrap,” he says on the drive back to Mérida. He considers for a moment. “I think the reason I did it is probably more narcissistic than idealistic. Interesting artists are like really generous narcissists. They allow you to see through the things that they do—they lend you their eyeballs.”