Celia Álvarez Muñoz Adds Color to Conceptualism
LA JOLLA, Calif. — Celia Álvarez Muñoz: Breaking the Binding suggests an artist who grew up speaking two different visual languages: the pared-down intellectualism of conceptual art’s sparse text-and-image combos and a brazen vernacular of the Tex-Mex border’s bright colors and Indigenous roots. Indeed, Álvarez Muñoz’s exhibition at the La Jolla location of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, her first museum retrospective, reflects her delight in merging binaries — the personal and political, the Spanish and English languages, conceptual art and storytelling — presenting them as messily and inseparably conjoined.
With an eye for unearthing cultural hypocrisy and advocating for exploited people, Álvarez Muñoz responds to social injustice, using both direct condemnation and emotional restraint. One such lesson in the latter comes from the installation “El Limite” (1991). She couples large black and white photomurals depicting toy trains made from sardine cans with a text about her father’s life. He was a train-hopper as a child, and he spent time in Europe on trains while fighting in World War II. The artist links this to the Mexican Revolution of 1940 and the Bracero Program.
Bracero was a program that ran from 1942 until 1964. It granted work permits for Mexican workers to fill US labor shortages caused by the war. While protection from discrimination was “guaranteed,” many braceros faced a variety of hardships, from non-payment of wages to racism and retaliatory lynchings. Many American agricultural workers felt threatened by the Mexican workers’ low-wage presence, but in the end both were largely replaced by machines. Álvarez Muñoz curates a combination of images and text that allows the viewer to do the work of interpreting these abuses of power.
In “Fibra y Furia” (1997), Álvarez Muñoz addresses labor abuses yet again, this time with a focus on gender discrimination. The stereotypical dresses of housewives are juxtaposed with large swathes hanging from the ceilings. This visually compelling piece comments on the fashion industry’s exploitation of female labor to make garments that ironically hold women captive in their gendered identities. “Fresas” (1997) likewise exposes the sexualization of women in society. Denim “booty” shorts are cut into a thong in which the crotch is tellingly replaced with red sequined fabric, connecting objectification to the way female labor in the garment industry is undervalued.
One of the artist’s best-known pieces, “Petrocuatyl” (1981), is both an installation and a performative lecture the artist gave as a response to a graduate art history professor’s assignment at North Texas State University. Instead of giving a generic presentation, Álvarez Muñoz came dressed as the teacher and told the class that her “husband” would curate an exhibition around a recently discovered pre-conquest site in Mexico City. (The actual professor’s husband was a curator at the Kimball Art Museum.) Álvarez Muñoz went on to present her own sculpture as an “actual artifact” from the site — a mask she constructed from a vintage WWII respirator adorned with beads and feathers, which belonged, she said in character, to Petrocuatyl, a (fictional) recently discovered Aztec god. In this cheekily humorous response to a simple art history assignment, Álvarez Muñoz both calls into question the authenticity of art history and archeology and inserts herself, a Chicana artist, into its White, male-dominated narrative.
Woefully under-represented in the current canon of art history, Álvarez Muñoz has been making such dynamic interventions into contemporary conceptual art for more than four decades. Awash in both art historical references and cultural specificity, the artworks on display are also imbued with the artist’s wit. She refuses to be categorized as a Chicana artist or purely conceptual. Instead, she walks the line between both. The nuanced works require patience and the willingness to unravel its personal and political histories.
Celia Álvarez Muñoz: Breaking the Binding Continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect Street in La Jolla (California) until August 13. The exhibition was co-curated by Isabel Casso, Dr. Kate Green (curator of modern and contemporary arts at Philbrook museum of art) and Dr. Kate Green.