“I don’t like this situation either,” artist Ben Muñoz told me recently, standing within his solo exhibition at the Flatbed Center for Contemporary Print. “But artists, we got a make a living.”
Muñoz is wearing mask and so am I. With his exhibition ending soon (it closes July 29) Muñoz’ was spending two days doing one-to-one gallery talks. Austin is currently in Stage 4 COVID-19 risk, and Flatbed’s health safety protocols meant no more than four people in its gallery, as well as the city-mandated mask requirement.
Muñoz’s exhibition, “Over My Head,” seems aptly titled for our times, though the phrase is actually something of a tagline for the Dallas-based artist. In both content and scale, his massive, image-crowded woodcut prints suggest that life is larger than ourselves.
And anyway, if truth be told, Muñoz has always really wanted to do one-to-one gallery conversations.
“When you have openings, there’s so many people and you never get a chance to have more than just a brief conversation about the work,” he tells me. “But I love art openings and I miss them. I love everything about openings: I like the cheese on the little plates, I like the wine, I like the shuffling of feet, and seeing my friends.”
Muñoz is affable and an easy talker, with the kind of gregariousness many printmakers seem to share. (Does the gregariousness comes from the collaborative nature of printmaking?)
Using Flatbed’s presses, Muñoz recently made two large-scale chiaroscuro woodcuts to finish a four print series titled “Familia.” At 62-by-36 inches, the four prints occupy an entire wall of Flatbed’s gallery.
On the other side of the high-ceilinged gallery, and at even a larger scale, is “The Endless Endeavor” series, six woodcuts that measure 100-by-52 inches. Both series use imagery that reflect Muñoz’s Latino heritage and his family’s history, and how they came to Texas from Mexico three generations ago.
In his prints Muñoz stacks images, creating a personal iconography — Mexican and U.S flags emerging from an Aztec vessel with the head of rain god Tlaloc; a forklift with wooden crate stamped with ‘Hecho en Mexico”; a rattlesnake wrapped around an oil derrick; a taco truck.
Muñoz is particularly drawn to the story of his grandfather, Alberto, who emigrated in the 1930s from Mexico City when he was 17, hoping to get to Chicago but ending up in Corpus Christi. Alberto would cross the Rio Grande ten times with authorities sending him back, until he was finally able to stay.
On his first journey across the Rio Grande, Alberto took off his clothes, carrying them in bundle above his head so they wouldn’t get wet. But the strong river current swept off his underwear nonetheless.
“My grandfather arrived in this country naked, like he was born again,” says Muñoz.
When he was a teenager, Muñoz was helping his grandfather build a backyard gazebo. “Then, kind of out of the blue, he told us to put down our tools and he told us the entire story of how he came to the U.S.,” Muñoz said. “At the time I was interested, but never thought to ask more questions. I wish I had.”
Muñoz is part of Latino printmaking collective called Siete. Together they stage live printmaking happenings and other events.
As he has considered the Black Lives Matter protests, and the ensuing discussions of equity, and racial and cultural inclusion, Muñoz has found himself asking more questions than coming to any conclusions.
“There’s so much creative people are unpacking right now,” he says. “I think a lot of us are asking ‘what are we doing, and does it matter?'”
In his statement about his “Familia” series, Muñoz writes that the prints document his personal experience with his culture and identity and how it has changed, and what has been lost and gained along the way.
“We created this group (with Siete) that shows our pride in our history and Latino culture, and I’m proud of that, and I will keep doing it that,” says Muñoz. “And if our goal is to eventually co-exist in an equal, maybe what we should do is gather a group that is actually equal. And not a group of white people with a token Latino person, a Black person and an Asian person. ”
“What if we had another (printmaking) group that looks like what we want the future to look like. What if we create that thing that looks the world I want my kids to grow up in? I’m not even sure what that would actually look like, but we have to start trying.”