MCASD presents Celia Álvarez Muñoz: Breaking the Binding, her first career retrospective

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MCASD presents Celia Álvarez Muñoz: Breaking the Binding, her first career retrospective
Celia Álvarez Muñoz, airbrushing process shot. Date unknown. Courtesy of the artist.

SAN DIEGO, CALIF.- Currently on view through August 13th, 2023 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is Celia Álvarez Muñoz: Breaking the Binding, the first museum retrospective of Álvarez Muñoz’s work, surveying over forty years of the visionary conceptual artist’s career. Muñoz’s distinctive artistic voice is rooted in both the history of art and the language of childhood storytelling. Drawing from her own experience growing up near the United States/Mexico border, Álvarez Muñoz crafts clever stories and send-ups of life in a multicultural and multilingual nation through a feminist and Chicana lens.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color publication by Santa Fe publishing non-profit Radius Books, which will be made available this spring. As the first exhibition publication devoted to the artist’s forty-year career, this book will feature installation images of Muñoz’s photo and text-based pieces, book projects, and large-scale installations, alongside unpublished archival materials and timelines. The publication includes contributions by the exhibition’s curators, Isabel Casso, Assistant Curator at MCASD, and Dr. Kate Green, Chief Curator & Nancy E. Meinig Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at Philbrook Museum of Art, as well as art historian Josh Franco. A book launch and conversation between poet Roberto Tejada and Álvarez Muñoz will take place at the museum on Thursday, June 15 at 6:00pm PT.

Growing up in El Paso, Álvarez Muñoz witnessed the city change after the formal settlement in 1964 of the Chamizal dispute––a border conflict that had begun over a hundred years prior. Álvarez Muñoz’s Postales (1988) series responds to the resulting waves of displacement, migration, and assimilation, as what was once was Mexican land became part of the U.S.. Featuring enlarged paintings of postcards depicting houses in newly assimilated border neighborhoods, the series is accompanied by sets of street signs hung from above that make literal the intersections of language and culture experienced on the border. For example, Mesa Street intersects with Maysa Street––a phonetic spelling of the way English speakers often incorrectly pronounce Spanish vowels.

The artist's background as an activist is paramount in Fibra y Furia (1997), an installation featuring 20 massive bolts of fabric and several garments suspended from the ceiling, which the artist notes is a rebuttal against the fashion industry's sexualization of women––and simultaneous reliance on exploited female labor––centering on the murders of young maquiladora workers in Juarez, Mexico, where more than 400 women have been killed since 1993.

One of the artist’s most iconic works is 1988’s Petrocuatyl, a photograph of a gas mask adorned with a crown of multicolored feathers. Álvarez Muñoz presented the pictured object in her graduate school art history class, turning a regular academic presentation assignment into an opportunity for performance. Styling herself after her professor with spectacles, a matching hairdo, and a Georgia accent, Álvarez Muñoz announced that “her husband”—who was a curator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas—had recently unearthed pre-colonial vestiges in Mexico. The artist displayed the pictured item—a product of her own creation—as an “artifact” belonging to the recently unearthed Aztec god. The god’s name, Petrocautyl—a portmanteau of the English prefix for petroleum and the Nahuatl word for serpent — pokes fun at the Western veneration of oil and the often racist and colonialist practices of archeology and art history.

Breaking the Binding features over 35 artworks––including six large-scale immersive installations, photographic series, and book projects. One such book project is her Enlightenment series, consisting of ten artist’s books that each portray stories and subjects linked to the artist’s childhood and coming of age on the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border. With cryptic language and staged photographs, Álvarez Muñoz manipulates the viewer’s belief in photography as a documentary medium while exploring themes of language acquisition, pubescent awkwardness, and sexuality. The series exemplifies the artist’s mischievous voice akin to Marcel Duchamp, who is directly referenced in another work in the exhibition, Duchamp Baños.

This retrospective takes its title from the English translation of Rompiendo la Liga (1989-1990), a multimedia artwork that marks Álvarez Muñoz’s transition from the bookform to three-dimensional installation, which remains central to her practice today. The title speaks to how the artist ruptured categorical boundaries for decades, eliminating the separation between the individual and the collective. This is achieved through her signature utilization of slippages between Spanish and English, and text and image, allowing meanings to multiply and fracture, and leaving room for contradiction, misunderstanding, and humor.

Celia Álvarez Muñoz: Breaking the Binding is organized by Isabel Casso, Assistant Curator at MCASD, and Dr. Kate Green, Chief Curator & Nancy E. Meinig Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at Philbrook Museum of Art. This exhibition is made possible by underwriting support from the Cochrane Exhibition.

Operations and programs at MCASD are made possible by the generous contributions for the Museum's Board of Trustees, MCASD Giving Circles and Members, the California Arts Council, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture through the Organizational Support Program, The Conrad Prebys Foundation, the E.A Michelson Foundation, the G.A Foster Legacy Foundation, the Lattatore Foundation, The Parker Foundation, the Qualcomm Foundation, and The ResMed Foundation.

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