ben muñoz | true grit
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 17 july 2019
Ben Muñoz spoke to me from the end of the world. It was our second attempt at recording our conversation for the pine|copper|lime podcast and he wasn’t going to let a little something like a windstorm so strong it toppled a construction crane stop him. This was a few weeks ago in Dallas, the storm made international news down here in Sydney as that falling crane had sadly taken someone’s life. Without power in most of his neighbourhood and without cellphone reception in most of the city, Muñoz made his way to the parking lot of a local library to stand in the wind and talk to me about how he came to install six, eight by four foot intricately carved woodblocks on the exterior of the Art Center of Corpus Christi. Yet, unlike most of the artists I speak with who begin their story in childhood drawings, or seminal museum visits, Muñoz’s begins his story with his grandfather, Alberto, who crossed illegally into the states from Mexico at the age of 19 in hope of a better future for his one day children. This is the same story chronicled in Muñoz’s woodcuts titled “The Endless Endeavor”, the endeavour being the actions parents take, the work they put in, and the risks they go through in hopes that their ceiling will be their child’s floor before the cycle begins again. It’s the kind of selflessness that is not often championed in our world, and it takes the kind of grit that goes mostly unseen. The kind of grit to take on being a working artist, the kind of grit it takes to stand in the middle of a parking lot in a windstorm and talk about the art scene of Dallas, the challenges of gallery representation, and your apparel company for two hours with a podcast host in Sydney.
Muñoz and I almost immediately dive in to talking about the nature of the hustle in the art world. Game recognises game. Through this conversation Muñoz makes one of my favourite observations about the art world I’ve heard:
“You’ll meet these bitter people who I’ll hear say, ‘This whole thing is rigged and it’s not necessarily who’s the most talented, it’s whoever’s got the connections.’ What I don’t understand about that attitude is that should be encouraging to you! Because if it was just whoever was the most talented none of us would be here. You’re not the most talented, I’m not the most talented, most everyone you’re ever going to meet isn’t going to be the most talented. Talent is important, but it’s not the most important.”
So if it’s not raw talent, what is the magic bullet? It’s grit, luck, generally being a good person, and an effectively advocating for oneself. Muñoz is immediately likeable. I’ve never had a guest before who asked so many questions back to me, about myself and my process. He comes off as driven and engaged, and I wouldn’t hesitate to dive into a project with him. I am sure that it is these qualities that were recognised by the Art Center of Corpus Cristi when they engaged Muñoz for his undertaking of “The Endless Endeavor”.
Corpus Christi, Texas, is Muñoz’s hometown. It’s a beachy community with a strong printmaking presence. Muñoz wasn’t particularly interested in art until college, but he did grow up exposed to the ins and outs of public life. Both his parents were public figures. His mother ran a community centre and would host balls and galas for fundraisers that the mayor or county commissioner would attend. These earlier influences surely instilled Muñoz with his skills in communication and advocacy for what he believes in. It’s a kind of ease of winning friends and influencing people that comes from growing up with a mom who would ask him to introduce her at events where the mayor was present.
“When you grow up speaking in front of people who you can’t embarrass yourself in front of, you become kind of tailored to that,” Muñoz reflects on the time.
While Muñoz’s mother may have been able to put him in situations where he couldn’t fail, it was his father who tried to get him into situations where he couldn’t quit. Muñoz jokingly describes his parents as supportive to the point of almost being a bit irresponsible. He recounts a story of his brother, who at the ripe old age of 17, decided that he was going to be a baseball player - having never played a game in his life - and how he received unwavering support from the family. With this support, however, came the expectation that the children would give their all. Muñoz remembers the steady reprieve from his father of “just give it to the end of the semester” or “just give it to the end of the year.” This holding on in spite of the odds or the logic is something that is necessary for any endless endeavour, whether it be the bettering of your child’s future or finding your foothold as a professional artist. Muñoz points to a statistic he read recently that only 10% of people who graduate art school will be making their living as a full time artist. Rather than being discouraged by these numbers, Muñoz sees it as a lode star. “All I have to do is hold out longer than the rest. The key being to not quit, even if everyone around me does,” he says. It’s a model of success through staying power.
Muñoz is well on his way to being a successful hold out. He is currently living in Dallas and working as a full time artist. He speaks fondly of his new home town and loves how supportive the city has been to him. He says of the scene that there is a love of the city that feeds into a love of the artists who are living there. Dallas is a perfect storm of the rich and the young, which makes art collecting fun and exciting. You throw a burin, you hit a millionaire. They are out and about supporting the arts and buying for investment, but also buying what they love. Muñoz would say to all young artists living in the states that the best move they could make would be to move to a young, mid-sized city. People will be excited that they are there, and the city will show their support for the work in real dollars and cents. It’s there that one can find the gallery representation that makes introductions to New York or Los Angeles so much easier. Muñoz uses Chicago as an example when he speaks to this, “There are a handful of families that have been running that art scene for generations. They’re not interested in me. For young artists I would say go to Dallas, go to Atlanta, go to St. Louis, they will open their arms to you.”
Working full time as an artist means being agile and diverse in how you go about making a living. When Muñoz isn’t carving his monumental woodblocks, he’s focusing on a side of his practice that is a bit more manageable. He and his wife, Juliana, run Casa Press which creates woodblock printed T-shirts for skate shops throughout the southern half of the country. The images on these shirts vary from calaveras holding up signs declaring end days and top brunch spots, to a teddy bear’s face opening up to reveal real bear skulls inside. In a shirt title “Todo's Los Cliches” a woman in a luchador mask, adorned with a Fridaesque head of flowers offers up a plate of baked goods. At first glance they read as classic skater anarchistic pessimism but there is more. Muñoz describes artwork without substance like meeting an incredibly attractive person who is incredibly stupid. He is playing with the viewer’s expectations in these. He’s borrowing from Posada’s sombrero-ed skeletons, but placing them in a context that the young and the hip will understand: the world falling apart while you’re looking for the best brunch spot. In “Todo’s Los Cliches” the cliche of a decorative Latina woman on a T-shirt eats its one tail as she looks accusingly at the viewer through the eye holes of a luchador mask. These T-shirts help keep the lights on in between commissions and exhibitions for Muñoz. They are quite popular through Dallas and he will often pass people on the street wearing his art.
“The Endless Endeavor” itself took Muñoz 18 months to complete between Muñoz and his assistant. As a series they are tied together by common aesthetic themes. Each print is bordered by a checkered pattern featuring images such as cactus, lipstick, or footprints. The main body of the compositions is a series of stacked symbols placed precariously on top of a collection of objects such as skulls, roses, or boxes. This precariousness is no accident, Muñoz sees this endless endeavour as being just that --it takes all family members doing their part in order to keep the whole thing from collapsing. Every stack is topped by a totem animal. The series begins with “Illegal Human” the print which chronicles the start of the Muñoz’s family’s journey in the United States with his grandfather’s crossing. Actually, to be more accurate it would be Muñoz’s grandfather’s 10 crossings to come to America before he was able to stay. Nine times Alberto was caught and deported before he was able to stay—and you thought sticking with an art career was hard. Once here he set up a successful business creating and selling Saltillo tiles which established the family to this day. Muñoz speaks about the ambition, drive and frustration that Alberto must have felt. He had so much to offer and so much he wanted to do, but he had been born just a few miles too far south to be allowed to do it. The title of this piece is intentionally confrontational, Muñoz points out that when people dialog about border politics they do not use the phrase “illegal human” but “illegal immigrant” because to recognise the humanity of the people who are the subject of these actions would make the cruelty of that phrase too obvious for a comfortable society.
As the series moves from block to block you see more signs of progress, hard work, and advancement. School books, oil drums, bread trucks, and printmaking rollers appear. Each object is directly connected to some aspect of Muñoz’s families story, but they are not spelled out for the viewer. Instead we are invited to stay with the story and attempt to decipher all the iconography ourselves. While the history is one that could only be told in our time, the approach to visual communication dates back to the sixteenth century and before. With the woodcuts’ arched shape and liberal use of iconography they are reminiscent of grand stained glass compositions telling the lives of saints. As one would decode the stories of martyrs through the objects that surround them, we can look to the compositions of “The Endless Endeavor” equally as puzzles to decipher. While the story begins with armadillos and aloe plants, symbols of Mexico in a raw and natural state, it ends with his daughters Jane and Florence symbolised by two teddy bears resting on top of a gas station. The two bookends juxtapose the raw nature of Mexico against the way Texas has drilled deep into the earth pulling out resources for extreme financial gain. Yet this doesn’t feel like moralistic story, Muñoz is well aware that it is in part the deep pockets of oil money that provides opportunities for his daughters and collectors for his art. He is telling a story from a birds eye view, recounting history and hopes for the future, not weaving an ethical allegory.
The only reason Muñoz can do what he does is because his grandfather left everything he knew to come to a place where his children could have a better life. As one block feeds into the next, each generation works hard to elevate the next generation. While the series ends with Jane and Florence of course the story does not, the title of the series explicitly states this. An undertaking of this scale in its physical presence as well as its subject matter reminds us of a larger story that we are all a part of, and how our actions, our morals, and carried down through the future generations.
The prints from “The Endless Endeavor” can been seen at Hecho A Mano in Santa Fe, New Mexico until July 20, 2019 and at Art Center of Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas from August 28 - September 28, 2019. The blocks themselves are installed on the exterior of the Art Center of Corpus Christi for the next few years at which point a new artist will be invited to make an installation.