Installed in Tadao Ando’s Stone Hill Center, with its linear planes of glass and stone and sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, Spanish sculptor’s Juan Muñoz’s playful and haunting pieces are displayed to remarkable effect in Williamstown’s rural setting. The exhibition, made up of eight works, is dispersed throughout the Clark, with six pieces at the Stone Hill Center and two pieces within the main museum building.
“Juan Muñoz” represents a significant effort by the Clark, known for its Impressionist collection, to embrace contemporary art. Curated by Carmen Giménez, the Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of Twentieth-Century Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and David Breslin, independent curator for the Clark, the show manages to demonstrate the breadth of Muñoz’s twenty-year career without becoming didactic.
Muñoz’s sculptures deal with ideas of memory and displacement through a simultaneously conceptual and figurative language. Upon entering the main galleries at the Stone Hill Center, viewers are confronted with seemingly innocuous elements of the gallery’s architecture: a banister and balcony. Concealed, running parallel behind the wooden banister, however, is a switchblade. The presence of the switchblade in First Banister disrupts the purpose of a structure that is usually known for its stability.
Likewise, the balcony of Hotel Declercq II is rendered non-functional by being stripped from any context. Installed high on the gallery’s white walls, Hotel Declercq II speaks to imagined space and theatrical installation. The notion of architecture is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. Muñoz’s pieces, like effective architecture, move the spectator through the galleries by choreographing space. Muñoz’s work is also disruptive, undermining traditional architectural language in order to play tricks on the viewer. In a September 2000 interview with Paul Schimmel, Muñoz said, “A collector once told me that I was a trickster. And I felt that there was nothing wrong with being a trickster. In a way, that’s great.”
In an adjacent gallery, smaller than life-size renderings of identical smiling Asian men in gray resin populate the space, introducing his figurative work titled Many Times – about three dozen of these figures stand in seemingly interacting crowds, but many actually have their backs turned to each other. Muñoz said in his interview, “I try to make the work engaging for the spectator. And then unconsciously, but more interestingly, I try to make you aware that something is really wrong.” The figures of Many Times end at the ankle, their absent feet implying immobility; they are perpetually stuck in motions of introduction.
Across the hall, the absence of human figures in Derailment contrasts with Many Times. Here, in a nod to Richard Serra, Muñoz precariously balances four train cars constructed from Corten steel that are based on an enlargement of a small-scale train model, at once monumental and minute. Muñoz further plays with our sense of scale by installing architecture inside the train cars – entire abandoned urban scenes. In one car, a park with trees and two benches sits empty. Warehouse-like buildings populate his imagined, bereft cities full of windows, balconies and porches. Portions of paths lead nowhere; stairwells end at buildings with no doors. Seen through the train’s windows, Muñoz creates a double awareness, turning viewers into voyeurs. There is a sense of examining an archeological diorama, the derailed trains implying a frozen moment in civilization.
The portion of the exhibition installed within the Clark creates an invisible dialogue that stretches from the modern, new Stone Hill Center to the storied Clark, a dialogue between the contemporary sculptures of Muñoz to the history of the Goyas and Manets amongst which they are installed.
Muñoz himself, who passed away following a heart attack in 2001, described his characters to Schimmel “as a mirror that cannot reflect. They are there to tell you something about your looking, but they cannot because they don’t let you see yourself.”