AUSTIN — Oscar Muñoz is very good at capturing the feeling of memory. His five-channel video installation Proyecto para un memorial (Project for a Memorial) (2005) captures the fleeting, fading sensation of trying to recall something that’s already in the past. In the piece, the artist paints a series of faces using a brush dipped in water on a hot cement surface. Just as he finishes one area of a portrait, the rest begins to evaporate. Muñoz’s hand returns to repeat his marks, only for them to disappear moments later. It’s unclear who these people are, but Muñoz’s process reminds us that we can never remember something without also seeing how much we forget.
Memory and seeing are at the center of Oscar Muñoz: Invisibilia at the Blanton Museum of Art. The Colombian artist’s first retrospective in the United States is co-organized by the Blanton’s curator of Latin American art, Vanessa Davidson, and the Phoenix Art Museum, where it originated, and features some 40 artworks from the past five decades of Muñoz’s career. His works are engaging because of their mysterious processes, and because they use universal, ephemeral materials like dust, water, and light to tackle heavy, eternal issues like violence, grief, and selfhood. At a time when “fake news” and war dominate our lives, Muñoz’s deep interrogation of the reality and power of the image feels especially pertinent.
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The artist’s own face appears in a number of works. In “El juego de las probabilidades” (The Game of Probabilities) (2007), 12 color and black-and-white passport photos taken at different points in his life are cut and spliced together into new combinations. Each face represents a disorienting collapse of time, and raises questions about how much of ourselves continues or changes with time. The composite collages are photographed up close, held by the artist’s fingers, suggesting a sense of intimacy but also hinting at the smallness and randomness of our own existence.
Time has a more physically deteriorating effect in “Narcisos en proceso” (Narcissi in Progress) (1995-2011). Thin pieces of paper that have been dusted with charcoal powder outlines in the shape of the artist’s face float atop water in plexiglass containers. The pieces will evolve over the course of the exhibition, as the level of liquid lowers and the paper disintegrates. Muñoz is again emphasizing his own mortality, if not winking at the conventional value placed on works of art as fixed objects.
More faces — and conservation challenges — come with the series Pixeles (Pixels) (1999-2000), a set of portraits made with coffee on sugar cubes. This time Muñoz’s subjects are victims killed in the long-running conflict between Colombia’s military forces and insurgent rebels. When seen up close, the faces break down and the country’s key exports — coffee and sugar — come into focus. Still, Muñoz’s portraits are clearly meant to denounce not just the violence, but also our desensitization to these sorts of images that can occur as they are repeatedly shown in the news media.
Happier pictures of others appear in “A través del cristal” (Through the Glass) (2008-18), where photos of weddings, birthdays, graduations, and other joyful events appear in wood, metal, and plastic frames arranged on a ledge. Closer inspection reveals that the photos are actually videos that capture the reflections on the pictures’ glass surfaces — people moving around the room or passing nearby windows — as well ambient sounds and conversations. It’s a poignant piece that reminds me of every grandmother’s house I’ve ever visited, where these sorts of photos are treasured and prominently displayed. Seen alongside his more political works, Muñoz pays tribute to photography’s most intimate, human purpose: to keep us company and to preserve our sweetest moments. All the while, life goes on just outside the frame.
Oscar Muñoz: Invisibilia continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Austin, Texas) through June 5. The exhibition was curated by Vanessa Davidson, curator of Latin American art, Blanton Museum of Art.