New York

Juan Muñoz

Wrecks and collisions have featured in much contemporary art, from Andy Warhol’s early-’60s car and plane crashes to Aernout Mik’s video of the aftermath of a bus catastrophe (Refraction, 2005). One of the most evocative entries in the “accident art” subgenre is Juan Muñoz’s Derailment, 2000–2001, a pileup of four rusted Cor-Ten steel railroad cars. A greatly enlarged reworking of a small-scale model, the train is at once monumental (it absolutely commands its space) and relatively diminutive (the viewer must crouch down to peer, voyeuristically, into the cars’ open windows). Inside are architectural details—building fronts and blind alleyways—from an uninhabited cityscape. Usually, toy trains chug their way through tiny towns. Here, things are involuted, so the town, which features an abandoned park complete with benches and a barren tree, is inside the train. Adding to the general sense of disorientation, the two bullet-nosed end cars are identical, making it impossible to know which direction the train (or trains?) was going before it, and the civilization it contained, was derailed.

Train wrecks are a central metaphor in Freud’s theories of trauma, but much of Muñoz’s work wanders into different Freudian territories, those of fantasy and dream logic, via enigmatic narratives, distortions of scale, and charged, often erotic contact between bodies. This microretrospective, the first show of his work in New York since Muñoz died at the age of forty-eight in 2001, presented sculpture and drawings from his last fourteen years, providing an overview of some of his signature obsessions. The selection not only emphasized the artist’s concern with space and the figure but also highlighted his abiding interest in masculinity—its rituals, alienation, and theatrical excesses. In Piggyback with Knife, 2001, for example, two bronze men with a yellowy orange patina are frozen in a pose of childlike play: One is perched on the other’s back, but awkwardly, as if overwhelming his carrier. The standing man clutches an open pocketknife between his bared teeth. Wearing delirious, menacing expressions, they perform the ambiguity between horseplay and genuine aggression. This uncertainty is also the subject of Two Figures with Scissors, 2000, in which two polyester resin men with leering grins bend to greet each other. One wields a rusty pair of scissors behind the other’s back.

Muñoz’s men can be wizened with age, but because they are smaller than grown-up size—often the height of children—they embody a transitional or liminal masculinity. Derailment, for instance, keys into several little-boy preoccupations—model trains, the spectacle of the smash—and the indeterminacy of the train’s scale mirrors the in-betweenness of a kid on the cusp of adulthood. In Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior, 1988–2000, a dummy (not the ventriloquist) stares at a large drawing while his animatronic mouth moves with a lifelike pursing of the lips to form words, or, from the looks of it, to suckle at an absent breast.

Muñoz was compelled by facades, both architectural and interpersonal: closed shutters, stiff smiles. But behind the desolation of his edifices and the blankness of his faces is a haunted, open-ended vitality. Just as children animate their toys with a psychic mobility, Muñoz’s objects glow with an interior life. Throughout this show, fragments of buildings appeared unexpectedly to suggest a powerful imaginative landscape: small dislocated spiral staircases and balconies hovering high on the wall. A miniature elevator (Elevator, 1996), disconnected from any dwelling, goes up and down in a fruitless, yet mesmerizing, journey; like the crashed train, it takes us nowhere, and everywhere.

Julia Bryan-Wilson