Oscar Muñoz


at Jeu de Paume


Inspired by 19th- and early 20th-century photographic processes, Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz poetically destabilizes the fixity of images, focusing on the elusive, introspective moments when memories develop. This exhibition, which spanned 40 years of the artist’s career and comprised over 100 individual components—including sculpture, video and photographic installations—was long overdue. Although the artist’s work is well known in South America, it has not achieved the visibility in Europe or the U.S. that it deserves. Dramatically installed in dimly lit galleries, Muñoz’s extensive, predominantly black-and-white body of work testified to his technical inventiveness and offered moving meditations on the transience of identity and recollection, themes that are at the core of his practice.

Born in Popayán, Muñoz grew up in Cali, where he studied art and filmmaking. He showed at Cali’s groundbreaking alternative space Ciudad Solar, and initially gained recognition in the early ’70s for his haunting hyperrealist charcoal drawings based on photographs of the city’s tenement buildings, three of which were on display in the exhibition. Throughout his work, one finds elegies to his compatriots, victims of the violence inflicted by drug cartels or authoritarian governments in the 1970s and ’80s. Subsequent decades led the artist to exhaustive experimentation, in which he employed diverse unconventional mediums, chemical processes and unstable supports, including fire, water and air as well as shower curtains, sugar and coffee.

Opening the exhibition was Ambulatorio (Ambulatory, 1994), a mesmerizing monumental floor piece consisting of an enlarged black-and-white aerial photo of Cali sealed under cracked security glass. A blurry mosaic of light and shadow—compounded by the splintered glass, which viewers were permitted to walk over and further fracture—it suggested the precariousness of local urban life amid the hazy luminosity of blistering heat.

The video Re/trato (Portrait/Try Again, 2004) plays on Muñoz’s impulse to keep memory alive. It shows the artist’s hand repeatedly painting the outlines of a face with water on dark stone. The image disappears soon after it is brushed on as the water quickly evaporates due to the sunlight and heat. The process is repeated over and over again in an exercise that also compels the viewer to remember and reconstruct the portrait. In another video, Línea del destino (Line of Destiny, 2006), the artist’s face is projected onto a puddle of water cupped in his hand; as the liquid slips through his fingers, the image becomes less and less decipherable. The progressive disintegration of materials as a metaphor for disappearance is central to “Narcissos,” an ongoing series begun in 1995. Essentially, Muñoz draws a self-portrait with charcoal onto a silkscreen mesh, through which he then forces the charcoal dust onto a transparent tray filled with water. The transferred drawing floats on the liquid surface, which is often supplemented by sheets of paper, maps or letters on which the drawings also take shape. As the water evaporates over time, the image morphs and eventually is reduced to black residue. Conversely, existence is conveyed through materialization in Aliento (Breath, 1995), which consists of  a sequence of small oval mirrors installed at eye level. The viewer is asked to blow hard on his or her reflection. For a second, in the vapory breath, an image of a deceased person (culled from obituary photographs) is eerily resurrected.

Although the contemplative potency of some of the larger installations was diminished by their proximity to each other, overall, the traces of Muñoz’s trajectories left a lasting impression of both presence and absence.