Ironic Icons

Patrick McGrath Muñiz processes his reality with dense and evocative worlds

Iread somewhere that the average person spends roughly five seconds looking at a piece of art in galleries and museums. The Louvre, for example, reports that the average time visitors spend looking at DaVinci's "Mona Lisa" clocks in at a meager 15 seconds, and that's generally agreed to be one of the most famous artworks on the planet. But if you spend only five seconds or even five minutes with a piece by Patrick McGrath Muñiz, you'll be selling yourself short. The more you stand with his work, the more you see. And the more you see, the more you start to pick up on Muñiz's deep dive into current events, social and political situations and his own personal experiences.

Muñiz is originally from Puerto Rico. Growing up on an island, he could actually see the visual evidence of climate change firsthand. He saw the waterline rising, experienced hurricanes, both in Puerto Rico and his current home of Houston, Texas; he felt the loss of more than one home and his studio, and he pulls from these experiences for his work. Simultaneously, he approaches issues, such as the border crisis and the American fast food epidemic, with caution, using their imagery in an act of empathy and a tool for processing.

Muñiz's early work leaned primarily toward the figurative during his time as an undergraduate at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño in San Juan. By 2005, during his graduate years at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, he took a neo-colonial turn, exploring colonial themes paired with pop consumerism. He also began to include the iconic imagery of saints, though while these are often meant to foster feelings of hope and light, Muñiz believes they come with a lot of baggage. He doesn't use the Canon to inspire good feelings; he displays them surrounded by intangible concepts like ignorance alongside more concrete topics such as hopeless children, refugees and people taking selfies. And though Muñiz says he doesn't identify as a political artist, his work almost exclusively deals with political issues.

He uses his practice to process what is happening in the world around him. Muñiz tells SFR he is skeptical of art as an agent of change, but it seems impossible that the bulk of his pieces aren't or won't be starting some serious conversations. Take "The Disembarkment," a piece from 2019 that finds a veritable who's-who of colonizers greeting a procession of Indigenous people on a seashore. A bulldozer looms in the background as Teddy Roosevelt, astride a white horse, American flag in hand, joins with an armed modern-day soldier, Christopher Columbus, a selfie-taking child in a Mickey Mouse mask and others; jaguars loom, nearly out of frame, and a rainbow splashes across the background in stark contrast to the violent undertones of the human subjects. There is much to process, and though its intent seems clear, the piece is dense with symbolism both subtle and not.

And that's just one of many. Much of his newer work follows this trend of density. His art, he says, is a mindful process meant to induce questions. That, he believes, is a pivotal role for any artist; Muñiz wants to participate in the conversation while acknowledging his limitations, knowing he can come from a place of empathy. This includes humor, though Muniz says the comedy was more prevalent in the past. But now? "The joke," he says, "isn't funny anymore."

Still, he clings to optimism. In his artist's statement, Muñiz writes,

"In June, 2018, my son Francis was born. Perhaps it is human nature to seek light in the darkness, to hold on to hope, to evolve and aspire to become an
instrument for positive change by starting a constructive dialogue."

Perhaps he is trying to convince himself as much as he is the viewer. We often
create factious and artificial constructs. An artist that happens to be female will always be known as a "woman artist." People of color experience similar constraints. As such, defining Muñiz as a political artist is almost like backing him into a corner and giving the viewer a preconceived notion. I urge you to experience this show with openness. Muñiz's emotional intelligence is balanced by a superior artistic ability and a style that, while reminiscent of the old masters, is undoubtedly contemporary.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz: Francis & Company:
5 pm Friday Oct. 25. Free.
EVOKE Contemporary,
550 S Guadalupe St.,

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