Maya Muñoz, Happiness, 2021, acrylic on paper, 18 × 22 1⁄2".

Maya Muñoz, Happiness, 2021, acrylic on paper, 18 × 22 1⁄2".

Maya Muñoz

It is through the mundane and the intimate that Maya Muñoz’s art invites enchantment. Her exhibition “Stills from a Year of Living Dangerously” presented more than one hundred acrylic paintings on paper produced during the pandemic: silhouettes of landscapes, beaches, bodies of water; portraits; and scenes of empty spaces where people usually gather.

In Happiness (all works 2021), we got a full view of an abandoned tennis court; behind it is a fenced-off area with a faded mural emblazoned with the word HAPPINESS. In two works titled Open Court, we saw other empty tennis courts enclosed by fences, the angular structure of these barriers complementing the lines on the court. These sharp geometries find relief in trees in the background—all rendered in overlapping spontaneous strokes of acrylic that break the illusion of flatness and unsettle the composure of the straight lines. The compositions are frank, each painting offering a clean horizon and a clear vantage point. This straightforwardness draws us in, asking us to dwell on these images of places that might be drawn from the artist’s memory. Muñoz’s hand style, characterized by conspicuous marks, jarring stripped-away paint, and a graphic application of color, underlines the sense of the subjective in works whose scale suggests they might have come from sketchbooks.

In the portraits, Muñoz sometimes fleshes out the features and contours, though most of the time her subjects remained spectral or blurred with movement. In The Pitmasters, for instance, three men look toward the viewer, their faces unreadable, almost melting, fading into the yellow wall behind them. But aside from Portrait with Bandana, where a man’s nose and mouth are covered with a cloth mask, all the faces confronted us with their unmasked nakedness. The pandemic spurred ambivalence toward the human countenance—at once making us flinch at the sight of the face and inducing a longing for a face-to-face encounters. And as for what’s behind the face, the series “Skulls for Happy” returned again and again to the time-honored vanitas motif.

Muñoz renders mundanity alluring. But this enchantingness takes shape in an exceptional time—the empty courts would usually be brimming with people; the sight of other people’s faces is normally taken for granted. The show in this sense catalogued the strange situation we’ve all been living through. Vax showed an unmanned table—apparently set up for administering vaccinations—on top of which are what could be an icebox for vaccine ampoules; a brown bag, perhaps for the disposal of used hypodermic needles; and a jar of hand sanitizer. The image forgoes any too-literal treatment of its subject; even its palette is fanciful: The background is mint green, the table an electric coral. The “Skulls for Happy” works likewise draw strength from Muñoz’s ingenuous yet idiosyncratic style. Instead of a somber melancholia, we found a more casual figuration, with each skull portrayed in bright, almost acidic colors. Through such choices, Muñoz’s intimate renderings bring fascination back to a world dulled by a pandemic.