At The Table
One of the pleasures of poetry is the access to a stranger’s interior life and feeling a connection of understanding and sameness. There are so many intimate, inner thoughts and feelings that occur during mundane and routine activities in our daily lives. In this interior system of emotion and language, we make miniature compositions in our heads, during morning cups of coffee, during our weekly commutes, that moment before turning the lights out for bed. It is this very rich intimate space in which Elsa Muñoz explores in her paintings. Turned onto literature early in her life, by her mother, Muñoz began to eagerly read anything she could get her hands on. It wasn’t long before her interest sparked a life-long love for poetry and, then inevitably, painting.
The lasting influence of poetry in Muñoz’s paintings can be seen in the dreamy chiaroscuro interiors of her portraits, still lives, and landscapes. In the brief moments of time in her paintings, Muñoz takes the time to paint, in exactness, an internal dialogue—a composition of language translated through form, light, and color. A heavenly-blue, diffused light filters through a sheer white curtain. The solemn study of a wasp’s broke wing and its nest. A woman’s hand rests on a child’s head in the still moment before she secures her rubber band. These visual poems reach out to us, in a day-to-day expression of the emotional potency and the dreaminess of domestic spaces, dreams, memories, and the transitory movement of nature. Muñoz explores the concept of beauty, poetry, and painting in her recent conversation with Newfound.
COURTNEY SIMCHAK: How did you get started in painting?
ELSA MUÑOZ: The first time I ever painted was in my second year at the American Academy of Art. The first year was all fundamentals and I was actually pretty terrible. I always struggled with rendering forms in charcoal and graphite. I remember feeling like lessons came easier to my classmates. But when I finally got into oil painting during my third semester, things just clicked. Forms and space suddenly made sense to me through color.
SIMCHAK: In your biography, you talk about how beauty and poetry are important ways in which you’ve connected with art and the world around you. Part of this understanding is a response to growing up in La Villita in Chicago and from an early introduction of poetry and art by your mother. You wrote in your bio: “And this is when I realized that beauty mattered deeply—not only as a salve from ugliness, but as an introduction to a deeper conversation with ourselves, the world around us, and the vast uncertainty within and beyond those borders.” How would you describe the difference between genuine beauty from the superficial? In other words, what is your relationship to “beauty” in comparison to “pretty”?
MUÑOZ: That’s a great question. I experience prettiness as being, at best, one-dimensional and decorative. But at worst, it’s deceitful. When I see a pretty work of art, it strikes me as being inherently disconnected from truth and the complexity of the human experience. I think of the famous last lines in the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” I believe that. Beauty propels us towards seeking deeper things.
No single image tells the whole story. All of the works, big and small, are necessary contributors to the same ongoing conversation.
SIMCHAK: Painting has such a drastically different effect on us, than say photography or sculpture can. I think viewers are more likely to humor the intangible and interior aspects of an artwork largely because photography always seems tethered to the expectation of reality. For painting, it doesn’t seem to have to answer to reality as insistently. What do you enjoy about painting? What do you think the medium brings to your art and your sense of the world that might be different or more difficult to express in another medium?
MUÑOZ: What I most enjoy about painting is the tactile experience. The transformation of globs of color into things that resemble different kinds of matter is really rewarding. And I suspect there might be something about this process that you’re sensing when you mention the way in which paintings can address “the intangible.” There’s a book by James Elkins titled “What Painting Is” in which he makes the case that painting is like alchemy in that it essentially aims to transform one substance into another. For me, there’s definitely that sense of alchemical magic about oil paint in particular. With different applications, it can have the density and roughness of tree bark or the smooth transparency of still water. It’s hard to articulate, but I suspect that this is where the conversation with the intangible begins—our gut responding to the mere physicality of paint on a surface. It happens on a visceral level, in some ways separate from an objective reading of the image itself.
When I see a pretty work of art it strikes me as being inherently disconnected from truth and from the complexity of the human experience.
SIMCHAK: I could consider your work psychological. While your work is figurative and realistic, your use of light and shadow creates the impression of memories, interior mindscapes, and dreams. Can you talk more about the use of light and psychology within your work?
MUÑOZ: There are probably a couple layers to address when it comes to the use of light and shadow in my work. First, since I paint realistically, achieving a quality of light is very important in creating a convincing atmospheric scene. But beyond that, I like the use of lights and darks as narrative devices. Lightness reveals, while darkness conceals, so it alludes to thoughts about what we know and what we do not (or cannot) know. It’s this tension and duality that lends itself to psychological contemplation. I have several bodies of work, so it’s hard to make sweeping statements about the meaning behind them all, but it’s fair to say that I enjoy seeking and questioning, not necessarily for the purpose of finding answers. It’s the state of quiet searching that I find most compelling.
SIMCHAK: Still life and landscape paintings have a long and rich history, but I feel like they can also be disregarded as decorative, superfluous and/or a lesser form when compared to figurative painting. What inspires you to paint a landscape and/or still life? What do you find are the strengths of both—as genres and as important elements of your overall work?
MUÑOZ: I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always just painted what I wanted to paint, without placing any expectations or hierarchies on different bodies of work. To me, it’s all just stuff I feel compelled to explore. Often times, in retrospect, I can draw connections between different bodies of work and see how they inform one another. That’s probably the main thing to consider with artists who move between genres. No single image tells the whole story. All of the works, big and small, are necessary contributors to the same ongoing conversation.
SIMCHAK: Do you have any new endeavors you might be excited to share? If not, have you read any good books lately?
MUÑOZ: There’s definitely a new endeavor brewing in my head right now. But, truth be told, I’m still in the phase of being a little afraid of the undertaking, so I’m careful not to say too much. I’m still trying to talk myself into it! As far as books go, I haven’t committed to a novel in a while. Articles and essays on social justice issues are more my speed these days. And then I try to temper that heaviness by reading some poetry at night, which I highly recommend.
SIMCHAK: As a journal that explores the concept of place, I feel compelled to ask what places do you feel you are drawn to the most? Why?
MUÑOZ: My favorite physical spaces are libraries and art museums. As a painter, it probably doesn’t require much explanation as to why I love museums. And in regards to libraries, I really just love being utterly overwhelmed at the thought of all the insight they contain. If it’s been thought, felt, studied, or imagined by a human, it’s been written about. I find that wonderfully consoling.
Elsa Muñoz was born and raised on the south side of Chicago and received her BFA in oil painting from the American Academy of Art in Chicago in 2006. She’s since had seven solo shows, including one at the National Museum of Mexican Art (2011) and at the prestigious Union League Club of Chicago (2016).