Imagining the Invisible: Oscar Muñoz’s retrospective at the Blanton

The clock struck midnight just a few weeks ago, ushering in a new year that feels tinged with existential uncertainty, not unlike the two hazy and panicked years preceding it. But if we’re adopting the sheen of optimism when it comes to 2022 (it is a new year, after all), it would be fair to venture that an attitude of imagination will prove vital in the months that lie ahead—a perspective that can both extrapolate the good and deconstruct the bad. And where better to start in that resolution than with Invisibilia.

Curated by Vanessa Davidson, the exhibition will open in February at the Blanton Museum in Austin, following its debut in Phoenix. It is the first U.S. retrospective from Colombian artist Oscan Muñoz (b. 1951). The show pulls from four decades of work, beginning with charcoal drawings from the late 1970s and carries into the multimedia pieces of the current day.

Oscar Muñoz refers to his artistic practice as an effort to “hacer memoria,” to “make memory” and many of his works explore, and occasionally exploit, the ideas of perception and recollection. But perhaps an even more prominent motif within Muñoz’s work is the recontextualization of Colombia’s history.

The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries in Colombia can be divided into several epochs of conflict, and the period known as La Violencia (The Violence, occurring from 1948-58) coincided with Muñoz’s childhood years. The decades following were defined by bloody clashes between the military and rebel insurgents, which blossomed into the notorious cartel wars during the 1980s. Approximately 200,000 people were killed in the 10 years between 1948 and 1958, and an additional 260,000 Colombians have died in the five decades that followed. The Colombian National Center for Historical Memory reports that most of these casualties were civilians caught in the crossfire.

Davidson, in speaking about the emphasis of Colombia’s historical bloodshed in Muñoz’s work, stated, “Associating the precariousness of life with the fragility of the image, Oscar Muñoz often creates poetic reflections on the brevity of both. Many of his works revolve around this relationship between image and life, while others feature explicit images of the dead. Nonetheless, in his artistic practice, his approach to violence as a dire reality in Colombia is more philosophical than political.” Indeed, in reflecting about his own upbring in Cali, a place which Muñoz described as having “numerous, complex, and thorny conflicts,” the artist acknowledged that he seeks to extract from the experience of conflict “a poetic level…a level that has to do with artistic language.”

It’s exactly this contrast from the horrific to the revered that helped capture Davidson’s attention when planning the exhibition. “I think that now, like never before, his pieces have an even more poignant resonance that extends beyond the Colombian context to become universal meditations on the intertwined precariousness of the image and the fragility of life itself, so germane to life today.” And while Muñoz is often lauded as a photographer, Davidson warns audiences that it would be inaccurate to see the artist as confined to the medium. Muñoz’s fifty-year career includes many deviations and dissections in the artist’s photographic practice, imbuing his work with drawing, painting, prints, as well as evolving to include video, sculpture, and installation work.

Indeed, Ambulatório (Walking Place/Outpatient Ward), (1994-2008) offers audiences a perfect study of the many intersections that comprise Muñoz’s practice. Containing 36 photographic modules that create a singular aerial scene, and housed in shattered tempered security glass, visitors are encouraged to walk on the piece and hear the soft crack and crunch beneath their feet. The work was inspired by a bombing in Cali and in exploring the aftermath, Muñoz was captivated by the broken glass that decorated the city’s pavement. The execution of Ambulatório, these kinds of fragmented and jagged images, feels emblematic of Invisibila as a whole. Muñoz’s work is not a quick study. It asks its audience to linger—to find cultural context, individual personhood and universal dialogue within the fissures.

Subsequently, Davidson encourages visitors to take their time with the roughly 40 pieces within the exhibition. “In our attempts to thread [the images] together, we become the artist’s accomplice. The viewer who looks—and looks again—is rewarded for lingering by an artist who not only privileges the act of contemplation, but also considers it to be the completion of his creative process,” asserts Davidson. “I hope that visitors will enter with open minds and open eyes…all in all, this exhibition seeks to uncover the philosophies and the poetics underlying this groundbreaking artist’s body of work. It offers a rare glimpse into the invisibilia behind Muñoz’s practice, as well as his evocative, unstable imagery that nonetheless persists in our imaginations.”