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Juan Muñoz 1953-2001


A Place Called Abroad - Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 1999

Juan Muñoz followed a consistently mysterious approach to his artwork throughout his career. Posthumously, numerous exhaustive analyses of his work help augment the viewer’s experience but add little to one’s understanding that cannot be intuitively gained from continued exposure to his complex pieces. The viewer of retrospective exhibitions still experience events that are fulfilling on both impact and resonance. Precisely, it is a fulfilment borne of intuition, not intellectualisation that has resulted in the cementing of Muñoz’s position in the latter twentieth century’s role call of most important visual artists. Muñoz’s work eschews the quantitative ‘problem-solving’ of much contemporaneous and conceptual visual art, maintaining its prominence through nebulous and fleeting responses provoked in the viewer. This discussion concerns itself with this mechanism and will analyse its components through detailed study of select artwork and the consistently recurring motifs that Muñoz used to such effect.

Undoubtedly, Muñoz is best remembered for his sculptural work but his diverse output also featured two-dimensional images, sound pieces, writings and collaborations with authors, commentators and composers - all facets that informed his sculpture. Among his major works, one can draw hints and references to art history but little in the way of social commentary or autobiographical factors. His use of sound recordings to accompany smaller objects as well as motorised movement in others allude to a more conceptual flavour but arrive at an entirely different poetic to the likes of Martin Creed or Sarah Lucas. Simply put, Muñoz’s work is never exhausted in it’s verbal description. Atmospheric use of space and an almost traditional emphasis on the aesthetic properties of sculptural materiality ensure the viewer a richer experience of his work, from roughly hewn wood carvings to elaborate installations. To contrast examples, the bronze ballerinas of the early eighties share the material aesthetic of the later Dia Center installation in New York. Shared properties of rough finish prevail in both cases yet their scale and intent are far removed. Bronze, resin, leather, wax, metal - Muñoz is comfortable with all such wholesome and plastic materials of sculpture. These material properties legitimise his artwork’s presence in the gallery setting, freeing the overall disquieting intent. By more closely dissecting one of Muñoz’s more elaborate pieces, one may see the extent of this intent‘s ambitions.

The Dia Center installation A Place Called Abroad comprised two fundamentals. First, the architectural forms manifested in an empty street - the shuttered windows and doors, devoid of colour or decoration that serve to alienate the viewer from their surroundings yet simultaneously encourage them to physically explore the environment; a classic example of layered and conflicting meaning so effortlessly and credibly delivered. Second, the explorer would encounter tableaux - set pieces of narrative that subtly engender forced engagement. These ‘scenes’ are typical within Muñoz’s repertoire. He regularly used personified forms, humans with mild distortion that again would simultaneously engage and repel the viewer. Such forms are like cartridges of storytelling and include the Conversation Piece characters (so often reformatted and edited) as well as the mysterious Asiatic featured men that comprise the various iterations of Many Times.

In the case of A Place Called Abroad, the viewer encounters five such seated figures. Again Muñoz wishes us to engage us with a reaction to the material properties of his work. These figures appear burnished with age or weathering. The patination and off-brown textured surface immediately impacts as a reference to traditional sculpture or painting; the earthy tones - the creased folds. Instinctively, the viewer does not wish to intrude on this drama as the figures are clearly engaged in an activity with its own loosely defined temporal quality as well as physical boundary. Indeed the perimeter of the piece

is geometrically contained in the overly formal arrangement of the chairs. The border is broken at one point, allowing psychological entry for the viewer. One figure is twisted to face the rear mirror which reflects the whole scene and crucially the viewer also. This allows for the inevitable complexity, the multi-layered consequences of such a piece so directly intended to provoke conflict within the viewer’s apparent sense of self, their personal engagement with the piece and the counterfeit proximity to human presence. To investigate this piece (and so many other that utilise personification of apparently impossible life), The viewer is relentlessly bounced from carefully calibrated psychological nuances. These are time, humanity, alienation and voyeurism. Instinctively, the viewer’s intuition attempts to make sense of or ’solve’ the confusing setting with which they are presented. In the neat and arid environment of the gallery, no respite of human trappings are available. The starved mind is force fed the distilled forms of humanity’s narrative. It is this almost banal confusion that is typical and serves as an arena for Muñoz’s work.

In cases, this arena; this panorama of indecision, is expressed in a more tangible and geometric manner. Rather than relying on the psychological engagement to define the physical perimeter of a piece, Muñoz has often utilised defined space for his pieces. A recurring motif of geometric flooring patterns has manifested in several works. Again, the ‘cartridges’ of interaction are interchangeable and easily edited but the intent remains the same. These tiled areas define an uncomfortable environment in which we are divorced from the sculptural players’ travails or are made to seek identification with them due to their seeming isolation. Whether it be a de-saturated figure carrying another on its shoulders or a marooned marionette sitting on a far shelf, this starkly decorated flooring defies a single explanation within each ‘story’ it features.

Such narrative juxtaposition is hardly limited to his large-scale pieces. In his Ballerinas, we experience smaller unified and beautiful objects. Our aesthetic sensibilities are stimulated first. The materiality and finish of the objects simply entertain. Next, we notice the mechanisms - the implied movement and interactions. We can see that these childlike images have mass and kinetic potential. Despite their weighty distortions we begin to equate these pieces with human analogues. Finally, we register the bells on one figure in sharp contrast to the threatening blades of another. This final periphery draws us into a personified analysis. They hint at an underlying narrative not simply incidental to the material and aesthetic properties of the sculpture. It seems that even at this small and playful scale Muñoz must draw veils over simplicity and layer his complexities.

Like many successful sculptors Muñoz’s later pieces grew more ambitious on a physical scale. Like Serra, or Kapoor, he recognised scale as a tool of sculpture and the reward for artistic acclaim is the freedom to use this tool as the opportunity arises. Muñoz’s working methods have allowed him to experiment with different editions of recurring themes on a far grander scale. The bulbous figures of the Conversation Piece series or the endlessly duplicated laughing men would be configured repeatedly to enhance a particular formula in Madrid, Barcelona, London or New York. In all cases, Muñoz finished the figures in the same unsentimental slate grey, liberally arranging them in numerous interactions that always defied explanation. Particularly in the case of Double Blind, Muñoz’s commission for the Tate’s Turbine Hall, he was able to combine architectural ambitions with narrative enhancements.

One consequence of utilising such large spaces is that the viewer is likely to spend a longer period of time exploring the work. The natural stillness of the gallery space may not always be conducive to the action that the artist wished to imply. As a result, he elaborated on another recurring motif, the perpetually moving elevator car. In the conversation regarding this installation with James Lingwood, Muñoz firmly rejected the notion of the elevators being metaphorical. Clearly, his previous works still resonated to the extent that the elevators were employed in part to address the vertical space of the Turbine Hall but crucially, it can be argued that these moving carriages serve as crude chronometers. They enforce the impression of a temporal quality to the installation, thus the viewer unconsciously identifies with the validity of the fictitious environment. Time and space are grounded and relevant, even as the human analogues decry reality. Muñoz again bounces our unbidden reactions between real and unreal.

This is the overarching mechanism behind Muñoz’s artwork. Like his repeated use of the mirror or the shadow, The artist wills us into accepting common elements of the non-gallery context and his created worlds. The human may experience their shadow and reflection to an extent that they are hard-wired with these accustomed senses. To equate these experiences with those of non-corporeal effigies is uncomfortable. It forces a disconnect between personal identity and artwork that is simultaneously seductive in its originality and promise of a truth perhaps one day revealed. Muñoz himself had a more than casual interest in conjuring and performed magic (collaborating on sound pieces that involved an original score accompanying his verbal description of card tricks being performed) and one detects an air of the conjurer in his installations. Whimsy and anguish combine in novel combinations. The perpetually elusive nature of implied narrative concocts an arena of psychic misrepresentation that is the artwork - not the physical elements themselves.

That much of his work functioned on this plane of story, time, stillness and defeated analysis makes the artist’s untimely demise almost ironic. One cannot help speculate on later achievements never realised. His originality is marked by his work’s unfashionable but successful reintroduction of the human form into contemporary sculpture, particularly in the shadow of Carl Andre’s material and masculine forms or the imposing and mathematical structures of Richard Serra. That his most ambitious work was completed shortly before his death less than a month before the events of September 11th 2001 relegates his work to a particular epoch before cultural paranoia and new conflict coloured contemporary art. Perhaps Muñoz’s description of himself as a storyteller rather than an artist is more appropriate and convenient as it shields his legacy from the context of other twentieth century sculpture.

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Bibliography:

Neri. L. (1996) Silence Please - Stories after the works of Juan Muñoz, London, Thames & Hudson

Kelly. K. (1999) Juan Muñoz, New York, D.A.P

Lingwood. J. (2001) Juan Muñoz - Double Blind at Tate Modern, London, Tate Publishing

Neri. L. (2004) Juan Muñoz - Selected Works, New York, Zwirner & Wirth

Morris. F. (2006) Tate Modern - The Handbook, London, Tate Publishing

Wagstaff. S. (2008) Juan Muñoz - A Retrospective, London, Tate Publishing

 

 

 

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