It seems fitting to begin with what has yet to come when introducing the art of Elsa Muñoz. When I spoke with the artist about her latest work in February of 2023, a painting was just beginning, naked spare for charcoal marks sprouting from a linen support. The burgeoning composition detailed greenery forming a rift in a sidewalk in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Muñoz’s rudimentary line work foregrounds a material gap: the concrete slab is formed from rigid planes, while roots and stems are more expressively rendered. For Muñoz, who grew up in Little Village, a dearth of green space cultivated a sense of deficiency; her environment was less than. She initially looked elsewhere for nature. But escapism has never been a part of her vocabulary. Reconciling these seemingly incongruent urban features, she says: “Landscape is not this pristine, beautiful idea of this untouched pre-human scene. There are some things that are beyond our control, so it’s about appreciating, being aware of, and loving the things that are near to us.” Like the lithe weeds erupting from a cement fissure, nature is always making itself known to us—it is imminent. For Muñoz, you simply have to open yourself to your surroundings to see the grace of life, in its many forms, unfolding.
After studying psychology, Muñoz enrolled in a BFA program at the American Academy of Art, where she received a technical education in oil painting with emphasis placed on Old Master techniques. While this type of academic training can be démodé, for Muñoz, it was empowering to have the skill to faithfully paint the world as she saw it. She didn’t need a conceptual education; the ideas and curiosity were already there. Moreover, her engagement with figurative realism squared with her sensitivity to the mind’s affective capacities. Indeed, her earlier portraits of sitters turned away from the viewer suggest there is humility to be found in the things that we cannot so easily know—the things that we experience through faith alone.
Almost two decades later, Muñoz’s style remains consistent. Her muted palette and intelligent treatment of light conjures environments, both violent and tranquil, that disclose themselves by way of their own illumination—the glow of moon, sun or fire. Her “Nightshore” and “Night Forest” series forge particularly vivid images of landscapes on the cusp of disappearing into twilight. Her atmospheric work encourages you to pause and to look around. Having mastered her craft, she continues to manifest the same subjects—sea, land, sky—with a lucid, generous gaze. For instance, a suite of tornado paintings produced between 2009 to 2018 bear compositional affinities, but each one is a discrete event. The twist of the funnel cloud; the color of the sky; the location of the horizon—these temperaments vary from work to work, a testament to Muñoz’s ability to see things so clearly. One senses that she never tires of her subjects; she delights in the presence of idioms cast in a fresh light.
And her work is finally gaining the reception it deserves. In the past five years her painting has appeared in over two dozen exhibitions, including four solo shows. She has shown widely across Illinois and in recent years her work has gained broader attention with stateside exhibitions in Los Angeles, Denver and Minneapolis and international presentations in Mexico City and, most recently, Madrid. In 2019 she received the Meier Achievement Award and she was the 2022 recipient of a Chicago Artists Coalition SPARK grant. These accolades are encouraging for Muñoz, but her subject matter—nature and its ever-nebulous contours—remains at the center of her life-affirming practice.
Muñoz has worked to shift her mindset when opportunities do not present themselves. She conceived of an exchange between like-minded artists in Chicago and Madrid. Muñoz used the opportunity of a five-month residency in Madrid to take risks with a medium she thought she knew completely. She always worked on panels, but access to affordable materials overseas has allowed her to work with raw linen. She’s handling paint in a new way while maintaining the faith and formal convictions at the core of her practice. A new idiom has proven particularly fruitful: the ex-voto. Muñoz encountered these handmade sacred offerings at a young age while visiting a pilgrimage site in Jalisco, Mexico, her parents’ hometown. Inspired by this ritual, her latest paintings—presented in a February solo show in Madrid—detail “little miracles.” They depict moments of physical and spiritual healing. Like traditional ex-voto paintings, her canvases pair images with narrative text. Muñoz is a gifted raconteur, evidenced by the effortlessly succinct inscriptions that accompany her transcendent images. She says, “I can’t over-explain them, they’re my memories.” One painting depicts a nocturnal flower that blooms after nightfall. The painting appears to blush, warming the linen with the tingle of something so beautiful that it may only be uttered under the moon’s eye. (Alexandra Drexelius)