Live & Let Diorama: Q&A with Meow Wolf Grapevine Artist Carmen Menza

Meow Wolf Grapevine collaborating artist Carmen Menza’s light-based works open our eyes to our connections with the universe.

Light and color are often synonymous with Meow Wolf. Spaces come to life in spectrums that we don’t normally see in our beige and gray, day-to-day lives—just one reason it’s so easy to get lost in, say, Omega Mart or at the “Couch of Eternal Reverb.” Our visions and ideas about home, the grocery store, or the metro station are defamiliarized and recast, as well as our relationships to those places in our respective realities. Carmen Menza engages with that same sense of defamiliarization in her installations, creating spaces to redefine our relationships to light and color. 

artist Carmen Menza headshot with shoulder length brownish-red hair smiling at the camera. The background is a pale pink
Carmen Menza. Photo by Shawn Saumell

“When thinking of space in my work, I am always working to achieve a feeling of depth and three dimensions,” says Menza. “I try to compress or expand space in my work through the use of complementary colors and repetitive patterns that change with your angle of incidence, different specular materials and varying qualities of light (i.e. direct/diffused).”

Carmen has four dioramas at Meow Wolf Grapevine, three light-based works paired with musical scores—“Promise Me the Sun,” “Ghost Universe,” and “Submerged”—and one interactive work titled, “Tipping the Antimatter,” created in collaboration with Joel Olivas. Menza’s lightboxes are constructed from acrylic, mixed media, and dichroic glass (a type of glass which can display different colors depending on lighting conditions). She harnesses light to animate both small spaces and large ones, using light and sound to bathe existing architecture, thereby transforming it into a new space.

light shining on a wavy piece on a wall
Translating Light 1. Art by Carmen Menza

“The varying degrees of intensity and color are my greatest inspiration…I have a window in my studio that I place various materials in each day that I come into work. Each day is a new installation, reflecting, refracting and diffusing the light coming through my window and radiating color fields throughout the space that change over the course of the day. Light, when combined with different materials, responds in ways that always surprise me,” says Carmen. “Light is a medium incredibly rich in emotion and aesthetics, and I never tire of it.”

Light can have an expansive effect on how we engage with a physical space, but Carmen takes it one important step further. 

circle shape with shades of pink and yellow on top of blue, like a sunset over an ocean
Aurora Borealis, You are My Sun. Art by Carmen Menza

“Time is an additional, fourth dimension that I use. I try to convey time through shifting perception and visual illusion with implied or actual movement. I feel that adding the dimension of time adds a certain level of uncertainty that might bring the viewer to question what they are perceiving.” 

And what we are perceiving may not be entirely clear at first. Menza’s light boxes somewhat obscure the contents within, pushing us to reassess the information our senses first gather. This exploration through perception is also transformational, spiritual. 

“I am exploring the effects of light in relation to color and space, how it might exaggerate or soften the angles of a subject according to its intensity and placement. I am captivated by using evasive materials that bring about a sense of mystery. Light is such a powerful conduit for transformation, and I think it channels a certain beauty and spirituality.”

Menza follows the light when working with both natural sunlight and artificial lights. Its playful refractions are a constant inspiration, and she makes use of both in one of her daily practices in her Tin Alley studio.

Menza Art Studio, studio shot.

“In a space where I have access to it, sunlight will direct my choices in approach and materials. I might use materials that would bend or refract light thereby separating white light into different colors of the spectrum. And of course, the tracking of the sun takes advantage of a time-based element and brings the outside, or nature, in.

“In a space that has no direct sunlight I might select LED lighting, neon, or projection-utilizing visuals created in software. In my installation-based work I love [utilizing the existing architecture as a sculptural element] to create depth.”

But Menza didn’t always work directly with light. She studied jazz guitar in college, and worked in broadcast television as a graphics designer and editor, all of which require an eye (or ear) for color, motion, and musicality.

“In 2011, I exhibited my short film, “Dream Big”, with the Dallas Aurora Biennial, a festival that included many artists working in light-based art. That festival is what changed my trajectory. I discovered artists from the Light & Space movement and a conceptual shift in my work took place.”

Moving images and their counterparts continue to move Menza and animate her work; music and motion both play a large role in her Meow Wolf Grapevine installation. 

“I’m always drawn to cinematography and the composition of a scene, which includes lighting and the musical score of a film. What mood are they trying to communicate with lighting? How is the music moving the story forward and supporting the characters’ performances? I’ve included sound design and score for three out of four of my dioramas at Meow Wolf Grapevine and am always excited when I get to combine both disciplines in a project.”

As for how to engage with her work, Menza hopes visitors will look deeper or differently at the world and themselves. 

“I hope that my work inspires a kind of reflection, a pause in time for the viewer to connect to something deeper. My works are meant to contain a level of interplay, and I hope to change their perspective to something they may not have seen before.”