Winston-Salem, NC

Oscar Muñoz, Line of Destiny, 2006, still from a color video, 1 minute 56 seconds.

Oscar Muñoz, Line of Destiny, 2006, still from a color video, 1 minute 56 seconds.

Oscar Muñoz

Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art

Oscar Muñoz, Line of Destiny, 2006, still from a color video, 1 minute 56 seconds.

“Imprints for a Fleeting Memorial,” an exhibition of installations, videos, and works on paper by the Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, haunts the viewer with images that evaporate, disintegrate, or in some other way vanish before our eyes. These ingenious portraits and self-portraits, rendered in a variety of formats, emphasize the fluidity and instability of the self, showing it to be a never-solid, ever-dissolving entity that requires constant management in order to appear whole. It’s a figuration of self-erosion that speaks to the universal human problems of aging, decay, and death while expanding the discourses of portraiture and the monument too.

Muñoz’s works are also implicitly political, alluding visually and conceptually (but never didactically) to the human-rights violation known as “forced disappearance.” Government-sanctioned removal of political opponents without trial is a global problem, from China, with its summary detention of activist artists and dissident intellectuals, such as Ai Weiwei and Hu Jia, to Colombia, where Muñoz lives, and where roughly 30,000 (if not 140,000, as some accounts attest) citizens were “disappeared” during decades of civil strife between insurgent and paramilitary forces.

In the exhibition’s opening piece, Re/trato, 2003 (the Spanish term means both “portrait” and “I try again”), a wall-size video installation shows the hurried hand of the artist using a brush dipped in water to “paint” a self-portrait on a concrete slab that is directly exposed to the sun. As he works to finish one feature of the face, another disappears through evaporation, so he draws the first again—only to have the other fade into oblivion just as quickly. The necessity of ever shoring up the self as it continually dissolves seems here to be a matter both tragic (alluding to the myth of Sisyphus) and comic (reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line). And it calls to mind, too, the Marxian formulation that in capitalist modernity “all that is solid melts into air.”

Similar in form, Project for a Memorial, 2004–2005, features five videos aligned side by side showing a hand quickly sketching water portraits on concrete, but never quickly enough for all the heads to be simultaneously intact. Faces in flux also emerge from Pixels, 1999–2000, a three-dimensional wall hanging made of white sugar cubes variously toned brown by immersion in coffee and arranged in gridded patterns that cohere into elemental portraits, à la Chuck Close. The artist worked from forensic photographs that had appeared in Colombian newspaper of various drug trade murders—thus invoking three of his country’s principal exports: sugar, coffee, and cocaine.

Several other pieces, in a variety of media, from photographic prints to videos to installations, reveal more faces (including several likenesses of Muñoz himself) decomposing before our eyes. For example, in the 2006 video Line of Destiny, we see the artist gazing at his own reflection in a handful of water. As the liquid seeps through his fingers, his self-portrait becomes progressively more grotesque before vanishing altogether. Fugitive portraits appear multiple times in this show, as they do again in Narcissus, 2001–2002, a video installation with corresponding C-prints, and in Narcissi, 1991/2009, a group of various shallow vessels bearing faces made by “silk-screening” sifted charcoal dust onto the surface of water. As the water recedes—either imperceptibly, through evaporation in the gallery over a matter of weeks, or rapidly, by way of a drain—the portraits break apart, leaving only denatured likenesses of the originals.

Whereas most of the works in the show activate three of the four natural elements—earth, wind, and water—Intervals (While I Breathe), 2004, specifically evokes the fourth, fire. This piece consists of six pointillist self-portraits made by burning cigarette holes in paper, like benday dots, and exhaling smoke into them for coloration. In using his own lungs, the artist adds an extra dimension of resonance to the term “creative destruction,” treating his body, and not only his drawing, as a self-consuming artifact. Given the unspoken context of political disappearance that underlies the show, this brilliant work invites thoughts of torture, and perhaps self-immolation, inasmuch as human flesh, rather than insentient paper, water, concrete, or sugar, serves as the material support on which violence is sustained and identity stamped.

David M. Lubin