Juan Munoz in Chicago
Juan Munoz Installation
Juan Monoz Installation
October 25, 2002
From Balconies and Hand Rails, to Laughing, Chinese Men
The Art Institute of Chicago
September 14 through January 5
Catalogue with essays by Neal Benezra, Olga M. Viso, Michael Brenson, Paul Schimmel and a selection of the artistís writings. 224 pages, with 145 illustrations, (60 color and 85 duotone). Organized by the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and The Art Institute of Chicago. Co-curated by Benezra and Viso.
Ascending the grand staircase of The Art Institute of Chicago, you first glimpse an undulating frieze of diminutive, smiling and laughing Asian men. Ranging in a wide ring around the balcony they seem absorbed in some lively chatter. Perhaps laughing at some shared amusing story. They provide a compelling prelude to a major exhibition, Juan Munoz, offering the first major museum retrospective of the seemingly unbiquitous, Spanish born artist (1953-2001).
These are the same small laughing and chattering men standing in a large empty circle that dominated a large gallery during last summerís Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany. And a group of several of the artistís bronze, footless, globe bottomed Asian men that we encountered at the Hirshorn Museum, in Washington, D.C., last summer. New Yorkers will recall the complex architectural installation with figures at the Dia Foundation, ďA Place Called Abroad,Ē in 1996-97, as well as, his frequent exhibitions with the Marian Goodman Gallery. Bostonians may recall his project several years ago at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Much of the late work of this artist was readily familiar, enigmatic and problematic. For me, encountering clusters of generic figures, and the complex Dia installation, has always been an ambivalent experience. It is the relationship of the whole to the sum of its parts. As sculptures, the individual elements have been less than compelling. They have appeared more like mannequins than sculptures. There was never the kind of loving attention to surface and detail that one expects from a master of sculpture. But there is another approach, of which this major survey provides evidence, that perhaps this is not the appropriate assessment of the work, which is better appreciated as elements of conceptual installations. The Brenson essay raises the subtle differences between statues and sculpture. To which, I would add the terms figures and mannequins.
In the biographic essay by Benezra, we learn, for example, that in an early stage of his development the artist envied a neighbor, who thought of himself as a sculptor, but who produced cement garden statues (ah thereís that word). He bought one and disassembled it and used the feet to create some new work. So the artist was thinking in those terms and ultimately developed them as we see here in a very sophisticated manner but somehow rooted in the same concept of creating mass produced generic figures, however sophisticated, and clever when grouped and reconfigured.
Unfortunately, none of the essays in this otherwise thorough and scholarly catalogue offer us specific insights as to how these smiling Chinese figures were mass produced, or how the artist regarded them, and himself, vis a vis the definitions of high art and sculpture. Indeed, was he a true sculptor of rather a thinker in three dimensions. A sculptor, to me, implies an artist who is entirely invested in the craft of making objects.
To compare, say, a figure by Giacometti with its nervous, neurotic surface, to the bland generic figure of an individual piece by Munoz is enticing but perhaps neither fair or appropriate. Where am I going with this. The work by Giacometti belongs in a museum where the figure by Munoz may seem at home in a shop window displaying or hawking fall fashions. But I am not implying this as a negative just attempting to define a clear difference with an arguably harsh analogy. See what I mean?
This was actually a rather troubling exhibition. It was a lot of work to view and think about and now write about. Very daunting at each and every step of this process. Because, for openers, there was an entire early body of work that I was unaware of: The Balconies and Hand Rails. As well as the Raincoat Drawings that I found uncompelling and really donít want to deal with. Donít ask me why. I just didnít enjoy looking at them as drawings. They just seemed like non drawing drawings. Perhaps in the way that the smiling Chinese men are non sculpture sculptures, but in the case of the drawings, even less interesting. As drawings.
The artist proved to be very complex. The essays discuss how he grew up under the regime of General Franco during a time when the avant-garde in Spain was repressed or retarded. He seemingly backed into making art having first flirted with filmmaking, curated several important shows, and attempted to support himself as a dishwasher and or art critic. Which, if you think about it, have a lot in common. Later, through his brother in law, he became interested in music and playwriting.
It is odd that theater plays a role in the work, actually a rather important one, because, in an interview, he revealed that he only actually attended the theater a few times in his life. The more that one deals with this artist the more such conundrums and contradictions surface which is perhaps why, over the years, I have been somewhat cool to the work and now seem to be modifying my position. Some work does indeed take time and effort to be absorbed. Certainly there is a brilliance and complexity to this artist, which I am not entirely sure I understand or appreciate.
Perhaps I am like one of the artistís dummies. Smiling and laughing but stiff and frozen. Perhaps. Ventriloquists and magicians, particularly card tricks apparently, intrigued him. In a number of the works the figures bend toward each other in conversation. Leaning forward to listen closely we hear some of them actually speak but in a Beckett kind of theater of the absurd. He also was intrigued by elaborate perspective floor patterns. This first emerged in, The Prompter (1988), where a large gallery space presented a raised patterned floor. At one end of which is the prompterís box with a crude dwarf dummy. The dwarf is a frequent motif in the work and the authors reference it to the dwarves in paintings by Velasquez, including Las Meninas.
The Balconies and early welded metal pieces from the mid 1980s were intriguing. The essays imply that they evolved from his experience of life in Spain and the proximity, balcony to balcony, with the family of a tutor who had an enormous influence on the artist and his brother. So they are a kind of memory and homage to that experience. The railings are also fascinating and surreal. Particularly the example in which the artist has added a switch blade hidden in such a way as to injure one who reaches out for support. The essays discuss how he carried a switch blade for self defense for a number of years but eventually discarded the practice.
The essays also discuss how Munoz was one of the few avant-garde artists of his time who returned to the use of the figure during a generation dominated by minimal art. Interestingly enough, during his early period as a curator and critic he interviewed and exhibited the sculpture of Richard Serra. So he was indeed informed but reverted back to roots and traditions. Like Picasso, arguably, he pushed the limits of figuration, but, as a true Spanish artist, he never cut it as an iconoclast.
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