Juan Muñoz

Both illusion and allusion—in terms of scale, color, composition, and tone—seem central to the work of Juan Muñoz. This exhibition, which featured sculptures, installations, and drawings from 1984 to 1991, found the artist combining a series of references, approaches, and styles that have characterized his work for the past decade. As such, each piece could be approached as a unique object and as an integral part of the whole of the exhibition. Passing from one room to another inevitably put each work into a changing yet complementary context.

Muñoz’s distinguishes between literature and story telling. His art rejects any facile dramatic or theatrical interpretation, turning object, figure, and installation into a kind of open-ended labyrinth. The storyteller puts various elements and references into play, which sets the act of narrative into motion while not completing it. A good example is Waste land, 1986. The floor of the gallery is entirely covered with painted tiles that form a trompe l’oeil pattern. At the end of this repetitive sequence sits a bronze figure, on the far end of a bench. Resembling a ventriloquist’s dummy, the figure is apparently a young boy, but its suit, its slightly out-of-proportion head, and its smile resist any attempt to fix its age. In his complete determination of the space and the insertion of the human figure, Muñoz implies a theatrical situation. Yet the dummy’s smile points toward a Beckett-like figure—and a determined refusal of dramatic closure.

The figure, positioned between childhood and adulthood, turns up frequently. Oftentimes, however, it is clearly designated as a dwarf, as in Le Souffleur (The prompter, 1988). Using a floor pattern similar to that in Waste land, Muñoz situates the dwarf inside the box at the front of the stage. But, while the prompter is invisible to the stage audience, we see the figure of the dwarf underneath. Here, the ambiguity is physical rather than mental. On one hand, Muñoz may be referring to 17th-century Spanish painting, and to Velázquez in particular, where the dwarf was frequently used as a foil in royal portraits. At the same time, the figure also points to a paradoxical notion of sculptural space. Whether the dwarf’s head is covered by a stage prompter or he is leaning against a wall, Muñoz makes the insertion of the human figure into each installation seem unnatural. The dwarf becomes both the measure and the negation of scale.

Two other recurring references are the ballerina and the balcony or handrail. Here, the notions of support and enclosure are reversed, either by connotations of decay and lack of use or by an absurd suppression of context, where the object is made to stand on its own. In The Last Balcony, 1989, the metal bars of the structure are bent out of shape, and in Lines of My Hand, 1990, a series of handrails are joined to represent the surface of the palm of the hand. The bronze ballerinas incorporate the spatial games of the dwarfs and the references to balance and support found in the handrails and balconies. Their lower bodies are submerged in a circular base. Their arms extend over the sides, where they are anchored in place by balls that serve as hands. Here Muñoz combines balance with vertigo, lightness with weight, and mobility with stasis. Like an inventory of associated and invented properties, his objects seem perfectly situated between the mundane and the fantastic.

Michael Tarantino