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Oscar Munoz Is Only Human

Sicardi Gallery presents a strong selection of works.

Memories fade. People disappear. It happens in life, and it happens in Oscar Muñoz's art. "Oscar Muñoz" at Sicardi Gallery presents a strong selection of work from the Colombian artist, who manages a poetic blend of the political, the historical and the personal. Sicardi Gallery has shown some great work by Muñoz in the past but never this much at once, and never in such a gorgeously expansive space.

The gallery that Maria Inés Sicardi launched in a near closet-size office on Kipling Street in 1994 more than doubled its size in 2001 when it moved to its 1,700-square-foot Richmond Avenue location next to McClain Gallery. Then, this June, with current partners Allison Ayers and Dr. Carlos Bacino, Sicardi opened a stunning new space on West Alabama, just across from the Menil Collection parking lot. Designed by Brave Architecture, the building gives the gallery two stories, 5,200 square feet and 16-foot ceilings to play with.

The downstairs gallery displays Muñoz works on paper. The space is dominated by a group of tables presenting Muñoz's País tiempo (2007-2012), a series of prints of the front pages of El País and El Tiempo. Thick sheets of paper sized and folded like a daily newspaper are "printed" with the front page of the publications. But instead of using ink, the artist burned the images onto the paper. As you turn the pages, the burn marks become fainter. The initially blurry front-page image and text become still less readable with each turn, the same way the searing news of the day fades in our collective memories. While our short attention spans move quickly on to the next big news, for those directly affected by the newspapers' horror of the day, the marks do not fade.

Editor Solitario is the exhibition standout.
Editor Solitario is the exhibition standout.

Upstairs, Muñoz's powerful video Editor Solitario (2011) makes a similar point, and this video work is the standout in the exhibition. For the piece, a continuously looping 20-minute video is projected down onto a table. The video shows a hand laying out pictures — there are mugshots; images of cuddling mothers and children; postmortem portraits with dead eyes staring out of maimed faces; smiling, seemingly anonymous faces; the autographed portraits of apparent celebrities; and occasional painted images, self-portraits by Gauguin, Rembrandt and Modigliani. There is the Jesus image from the Shroud of Turin; a face from a Fayum mummy portrait; images that look like the products of police sketch artists; formal portraits of people who look like politicians or authors; a photo that looks like Patrice Lumumba; and, cropped from the infamous Vietnam-era image, the tiny face of Kim Phúc, the little girl charred by napalm.

The images in the video are constantly changing, just like those on the front page of the newspaper. The layout remains the same, however, as the hand obscures one image with another, sometimes blocking them out entirely with a blank piece of paper. There is a mechanical clacking sound as each photo is placed. The surreality of the piece is heightened by the fact that the video is projected onto real rectangles of paper on the table, giving the sense of actual photos.

Images like the one of Kim Phúc are iconic in the United States but possibly becoming less so as time goes on. (Phúc is alive today, saved by the photographer who took the picture. Living in Canada and still horribly scarred, she writes and speaks about forgiveness.) Other images show other horrors directly or indirectly. There is a dead man with half his jaw gone, another with a bruised and bloated face. Who are the dead? Who in Muñoz's collection of images are victims, who are perpetrators? Who are both? There are images I know are recognizable; I just don't know who they are.

While recognizing someone here and there adds additional layers to this ever-changing collection of humanity, it isn't the point of the piece. Muñoz isn't setting out something for you to decipher; it's something for you to absorb. A photo of a young woman smiling while wearing what looks like a quinceañera crown could just be a shot from a happy day, or it could become the kind of tragic photo that shows up in a newspaper after something awful has happened. Muñoz deftly uses his collection of images to convey volumes about human compassion and cruelty.

In the past, Muñoz has made fragile prints with coal dust on paper, and sometimes on the surface of water. Cíclope (2011) is a 12-minute video that's a blend of the two ideas. It shows water continuously swirling in a round basin. (The core of the water's vortex creates the "eye" of the "Cyclops" title.) A hand appears holding a photograph and sticks it into the water, washing the image away. (The photographs have been printed with unfixed coal dust.) It happens so fast you can't register the face of the person in the image, just enough of a glimpse to tell whether it was male or female. After the first few, the images seem to hover on the surfaces of the water, distorted by its movements. Over and over again, photos are washed clean in the basin. Initially, bits of coal clump and collect on the surface, but as time goes on, the water becomes blacker and blacker.

The coal dust is a highly evocative medium. Carbon is a part of all of us, evoking "ashes to ashes and dust to dust," the fleeting nature of life and memory. Muñoz takes the unknown people and dissolves their images, disappearing them all into a dark soup. It references death and decay, but it also alludes to disappearances committed by governments or criminals, often one and the same. Then there is, again, the disappearance of memory. People die and are forgotten. Family photos are lost or thrown out, the images' connection to memories severed. The individual humanity of the subjects is dissolved.

Muñoz has the ability to invoke so much with so little. The hands of the unseen actors in his videos could be those of a dutiful, cold-blooded bureaucrat or some omniscient and benevolent being — or maybe a bit of both. The interpretations are myriad. Muñoz gives us work that is neither maudlin nor polemicist, but simply intensely and richly human.

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