Exhibition installation was still in progress when I previewed “Oscar Muñoz: Invisibilia” at The Blanton Museum of Art. Somehow this makes sense as much of Munoz’s work hinges on ideas around process, time, and fleeting materiality. Muñoz’s media adeptly moves between film, video, photography, painting, drawing and installation, gracefully alighting on each but never resting for too long.
The exhibition begins with a floor installation in the museum’s atrium called “Ambulatório” (1994-2008), which is translated as “Walking Place,” or “Outpatient Ward.” Visitors are invited to walk over the security-glass fortified stage, peering down through its cracked surface at a six by six panel grid (36 modules total) of black and white grainy images. The images are aerial photographs, making a map of the city of Cali, Colombia, where the artist lives and works. The only guiding principle is a river that teases the possibility of situating the viewer, preventing solid footing from becoming too comfortable. Symbolically the weight of each step taken, represents the impact of death on a city with a devastating history of violence due to civil war and drug trade criminality.
Like the map’s mere traces of landscape, Muñoz’s portraits vacillate between being and nothingness. Near the front of the show is the artist’s “Retrato (Portrait / Try Again)” (2004) which appeared at New York’s High Line in 2013. The video records the artist painting a self-portrait on concrete with water. Just as the image emerges, the water evaporates, and it retreats.
Reflecting on the mutable, transient nature of identity reoccurs in many of the works in the exhibition’s first galleries, an organizational nucleus the Blanton calls “Presence / Absence.” A label reads, “Oscar Muñoz: explores dichotomies of presence and absence though shadowy bodies and images that slip through the fingers like water through a sieve.”
Another group of work centering on the image’s impermanent disposition is called “Memory /Amnesia.” In “Narcisos en Proceso (Narcissi in Progress)” (1995-2011) Muñoz uses charcoal powder and paper on water in acrylic containers in a technique he developed. Like Narcissus’ fruitless grasp of his own watery reflection, these images exist in an unending state of dematerialization. They remind us of the ephemerality of life and futility of clinging to the past.
Other works implementing unusual supports include “Cortina’s de Baño (Shower Curtains)” (1985-86), nine vertically hung curtains that reveal photo-silkscreened blurry images of people bathing. The bodies (like curtains) are caught in gentle movements, looking down, shifting weight, even crouching, yet specific details of their individual anatomies remain unclear, denying a voyeuristic gaze. Instead the viewer is silently summoned to walk amongst the ghostly apparitions.
Unable to view all of the video on this visit, the projected images I saw strangely resonated more powerfully and registered more indelibly than the artworks on paper, in acrylic trays or on shower curtains.
In the Blu-Ray video, “Editor solitario (Solitary Editor)” (2011), a group of what appear to be several stacks of photos arranged neatly on a flat rectangular table, are in fact projections. We see the artist’s hand comes into the frame and begin to flip the images, reorganizing them routinely like he’s playing a game of solitaire. Part pictures from family albums, part 20th century who’s who, identifying the subject of each image becomes a game of sorts too. Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka, Orson Welles, Andy Warhol and Virginia Woolf are just some of the lengthy list of recognizable faces. Each image might represent a life, and the collection a selected history. In his role as editor, Muñoz’s maneuvers the famous figures, making history malleable. He recombines, covers and uncovers images suggesting their slippery existence once again.
In the exhibition’s impressive catalog, the artist states “in every piece, the conflict between image and medium is a metaphor for the impossibility of grasping, retaining and containing.”
Curated by the Blanton’s Vanessa K. Davidson this is the first retrospective of Muñoz’s art in the United States. It’s organized by the Blanton Museum of Art and Phoenix Art Museum, where it originated. Comprised of five decades of the artist’s work, the exhibition warrants repeated looking, including my own in a return visit.
“Oscar Muñoz: Invisibilia” runs through June 5, 2022 at the Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, blantonmuseum.org.