Freddy's Back!

A 10-foot by 10-foot canvas can barely contain this man
Nick Vlcek

Freddy Muñoz is a bit concerned. Agitated, even. As we enter the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Target Gallery, three days before "Freddy Muñoz: Paintings, 2002-2006" opens, he leans over the brushed chrome railing that protects three smallish acrylics and touches one with a finger.

"It seems that a tall person could grab one of these very easily," he says to Stuart Turnquist, coordinator of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, which puts local artists on the MIA's walls. All Muñoz's other works are in the 10-foot by 10-foot range, and can presumably fend for themselves. "I trust that the gallery will be well protected?" he adds.

Turnquist says, "Oh, we'll have people everywhere." With his mustache and wire rims, Turnquist looks not unlike Ned Flanders, and has a calmly upbeat demeanor to match. Turnquist has been allaying artists' anxieties—and humoring their whims—for 29 years now as the MAEP coordinator. He knows what he's doing, which is generally letting artists do what they want.

Muñoz's attention to detail is understandable, given that this is his first big local solo show since a Martin Friedman-curated Walker exhibition in 1963. At 71, he looks great: just a hint of tummy, wavy white hair that spirals upward like the plumage of some regal bird, and steely eyes that modulate from brown to hazel. With his aquiline nose and multiple-earthtone outfit, he suggests a raptor in sparrow's clothing.

Born and raised in colonial Algiers, Muñoz studied in Paris for three years and spent a couple of years in Canada before coming to Minneapolis and entering the U of M's MFA program in 1958. He took a teaching job there three years later, shortly after getting his degree. In 1964 he traveled upstate and upstairs to become the head of the Duluth campus's art department. He resigned from that post in 1978. "Since then," he says "I've been teaching privately and conducting workshops all over—the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France."

While he very much identifies with the French, the artist's work reflects the inspiration of avatars ranging from Velazquez, Giotto, and Goya to Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, and Franz Kline—sometimes all at once. Marrying image and abstraction with freedom and discipline, he often challenges himself and his audiences with the robustness of an artist half his age. One of his contributions to a 2002 McKnight group show at MCAD was a realistically rendered, six-foot by nine-foot hunk of raw meat dotted with little color copies of Giotto angels.

Muñoz began his current cycle of apocalyptic paintings in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he worked and taught for seven years. "I was fed up then," he explains later, the disgust in his voice so thick you can taste it. "And I'm fed up now. One Bush is one Bush too many." Like many people who weren't blessed enough to be born in the U.S. of A., he pronounces the president's name "Boosh," as though dropping an alternative term for an unsavory sexual practice.

"Does the lighting seem even to you?" Muñoz asks a tech staffer as we approach the massive canvas called Net. What appear to be thick ropes of living flame dance across a background that shifts from black to a deep, vibrant blue as the eye travels down the painting's surface. He waves a hand toward the picture's upper edge, fingers aflutter. "I'm sure your instruments would tell you that it is, but, to me, the painting seems a bit darker along the top."

"I work fast," he tells me as we watch the tech dude reposition a few track lights, "but I prepare slow. I spent two months getting ready to paint Net, making the brushes"—exotic-looking, extra-heavy-duty implements that are displayed near the gallery's entrance—"and thinking about what I was going to do. Then, I painted it in eight hours. I love Mozart's Requiem, so I played it again and again. I laughed, and cried, and painted, and sweated. Then it was over."

Satisfied, Muñoz turns toward Monkey, assuming the classic inspector's position, hands tucked behind his back. Considerably less abstract than its roommates, but no less expansive, the painting depicts a life-size anthropoid with a look of ineffable anguish on its face. The creature is seated at the bottom of an abysmal chamber draped with strips of bloody flesh.

"How does this look?" Lindquist asks.

"It's exactly as it should be," replies Muñoz. "The monkey is making eye contact with us."

In the next room, a hanging wants for a tweak. "I don't think we need quite so many push pins along the top," he says, gesturing broadly toward Oneness. Like his other paintings, the earthy abstraction is on unstretched canvas—an approach mandated by both physical and financial necessity. Muñoz's Central Avenue studio is tiny; the paintings he makes in it tend toward the enormous. Without the option of rolling them up after completion, he'd soon run out of space.

Climbing a four-wheeled platform, which has two sets of stairs and railings on either side, Turnquist starts carefully yanking pins. "I wish I had one of those in my studio," Muñoz says wistfully of the museum's contraption. "I use step ladders. All the time I'm working, it's up, down, up, down. By the end of the day, I'm worn out."

Exhausted as he may be, the painter still has the energy to bike from his studio to the house in Uptown he shares with his partner of 10 years and another couple. An avid cyclist and walker, Muñoz is a hell of a lot fitter than most guys in their 70s—to the extent that he can get away with wearing his shirt unbuttoned almost to the navel.

"What do you think?" Turnquist asks after pulling all but a few of the pins. "I feel better that way," Muñoz replies. "Now if we could do the same with Animal."

Turnquist wheels the platform over to a huge portrayal of a pig, who is so energetically gleeful, he almost seems ready to leap out of the painting. "It's a portrait," Muñoz confides, "But I can't say of who."

A lover of critters for as long as he can remember, Muñoz gave up red meat right around the time he hit Oaxaca, after immersing himself in Buddhist philosophy for a few years. "Buddhism had an enormous effect on me," he says, "But at the same time, I read some books about how red meat really isn't good for us. I also learned about the awful conditions in slaughterhouses. Animals are sentient creatures with intelligence and spirit. They shouldn't be treated so terribly."

At a right angle to Animal, smaller versions of the smiling porker populate The Pigs Are Coming. Yet the splashes of red on some of their mouths and the painting's deep crimson lower border suggest that more than a little is amiss. Which is exactly the exhibition's point.

Muñoz isn't blood-shy. "Science is just now discovering what the Hindus and Buddhists have known for thousands of years," he says. "That everything in the universe is interconnected. I could never be like Matisse, painting flowers and nudes during World War II. I can live them, sure, but art is another matter. Everybody has a dark side. I just choose to engage mine."

But Muñoz doesn't dwell exclusively on the lurid. "Apocalypse happens every day," he says. "It's always a transition, never just an ending. Something good comes out of it, then eventually, more apocalypse."

Even his pigs face the prospect of a brighter future. Scattered among them in the upper half of the canvas are more of those Giotto angels, blue-green, beatific, and decidedly aloft. "They represent the non-corporeal aspect of the pigs," Muñoz says, smiling broadly. "This way, I can communicate with Giotto across the centuries."

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