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In Your Face

Juan Muñoz's lifelike figures come right back at viewers

Juan Muñoz's work is crowded. Sometimes there is a literal crowd of clustered sculptural figures that eerily shares the viewer's space. But other times the figures exist only in the viewer's mind as Muñoz deftly uses architecture to conjure the unseen. His renderings of vacant rooms contain the almost tangible presence of their owners. His sculpted architectural fragments evoke absent users. Unspoken narrative surrounds all of Muñoz's figures, both real and allusive.

The exhibition of Juan Muñoz's work on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum was organized by the Hirshhorn Museum with the artist. It was intended to be a mid-career survey. But in August 2001, two months before the exhibition debuted in Washington, D.C., the 48-year-old Spanish artist died from a stomach hemorrhage. The fact that the artist was involved in planning what ultimately became his posthumous retrospective only feeds into the haunting quality of Muñoz's work.

Towards the Corner (1998) is a collection of monochromatic gray figures. Seen from behind, they are standing, sitting and slouching on wooden bleachers. Walk around and you see a collection of identical faces -- all smiling, laughing and staring at a blank wall. Then you realize they aren't staring at the blank wall in the corner, they're staring at you. The viewer becomes the viewed. The piece is further disconcerting because all the figures are slightly less than life-size -- tiny little men with loose, scruffy bodies collapsed in ill-fitting suits. You feel like you and the figures exist in parallel universes. Theirs is a world without color where time is exponentially slower. Muñoz has pulled off one of those rare, spookily powerful art moments.

The bronze figures Muñoz created for the "Conversation" pieces he began in the early '90s have bulbous rounded bottoms that seem to offer the potential of movement but only in a limited fashion. Figures placed next to each other could lean toward each other, but would invariably rock back into isolation. Some of their rigid arms are shoulder-hinged, while other are integrally melded with their bodies and rendered ineffectual. The bodies grow out of the rounded bases. Their faces are nonexistent or blunted, their features muted beyond specificity, like the visages of timeworn Greek statuary. The grouping evokes feelings of isolation and frustrated interaction.

The smoothly rounded bases were always a little problematic. The idea seems derived from those vintage European children's toys with round weighted bases that allow the figures to bob back and forth. But something about those associations or the neat spherical nature seems at odds with Muñoz's execution and ideas. In later works from the series, Muñoz resolved the problem by making the bases and figures more bunched and saclike. The feeling of weight was exaggerated and the figure became more emotionally evocative.

In Five Seated Figures (1996), Muñoz presents a grouping of legged figures seated in chairs. Four symmetrically face one another while the odd man out on the end looks over his shoulder into a giant angled mirror, seeing himself. He is isolated from the group by placement and by his fascination with his own image. They view one another, he views only himself, and we view ourselves viewing him. All the faces are the same, not in the sense of an exact cast but in an approximate manner. Muñoz's work is about not the individual but the individual in relation to the group.

The sculptures are monochromatic, formed out of a resin with a mellow, waxy yellowish surface. Melded into their cubical chairs, the figures are wonderfully rumpled, both their clothes and their very bodies. They feel like they were made by stuffing a suit of clothes with old newspapers. The odd bunching of their torsos and limbs imbues them with an animated quality.

Muñoz's interior drawings are permeated by feelings of loneliness and longing, undercut by a distinct sense of unease. Executed in white chalk on black raincoat fabric stretched over canvas, the drawings have a velvety matteness. The stark hues create a dramatic chiaroscuro in the elegantly spare environments. In a 1991 work, light streams in from a window at the end of a long, dark hallway, giving the polished floor the appearance of rippling water. In the foreground, a rectangle of light from a window breaks the darkness to illuminate the profile of two elegant chairs. Placed neatly side-by-side, their backs are turned to the light and warmth of the window as they face into the darkness.

The drawings are nicely rendered, fairly conventional stuff, but it is Muñoz's skillful ability to conjure narrative in the mind of the viewer that makes them effective. His stark depictions of bland bourgeois domestic environments turn them into stage sets for quietly ominous dramas.

In Hotel Declerq I-IV (1986), a series of smaller-than-life iron balconies is attached to the gallery's blank white wall. Next to each is a "Hotel" sign whose vertical letters stick out from the wall at a right angle. Placed high above the viewer, they call to mind imaginary guests gazing out at the vista of a foreign city or staring blankly in melancholy isolation. Or maybe the viewers themselves are the objects of their attention.

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