So a critic walks into a gallery and looks at seven very large works ensconced in imposing frames. He sees multi-colored configurations of carefully cut fabric that in most cases looks like thin felt, and he notes that most of the configurations coalesce into simulations of familiar art historical images—one a Winslow Homer seascape, four others faithful to Ukiyo-e woodblock images by the likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai. Then he picks up the price list to read the titles of the works and realizes that all of the works in the exhibition are editioned digital C-prints executed on a stunningly grand scale.
He returns to the works and notes the subtle drop shadows around the shapes that he thought to be cut from colored cloth, and he still cannot see the digital artifice until he completes a prolonged close-range examination. Minutes earlier, he would have sworn upon a tall stack of holy books that the work was made of collaged fabric and colored paper, but now he worries that too many years of looking at art has taken a toll on his eyesight. But he still very much enjoyed looking at the work.
This short summary captures the experiential essence of Vik Muniz’s current exhibition at the Rena Bransten gallery. It offers a stunning demonstration that the difference between any real thing and its simulated cousin may indeed be a moot point, simply because the technics of simulation are now fully capable of outstripping the most inquisitive of human eyes, and perhaps the entire human sensorium as well. The only question that remains is how we might continue to go about enjoying esthetic experiences that we can no longer trust, with Plato’s stern admonishments on that subject suddenly seeming to be quaint exercises in an outmoded moralism.
The works in Muniz’s exhibition signal this in a number of ways. For example, his reworking of the Ukiyo-e images remind us that the term literally translates as “floating world,” and the world of images has never floated more than in our current regime of technological reproducibility. We are also reminded of the influence that such works had on the work of early modern masters such as Van Gogh and Gauguin, leading us to ponder the many ways that our brave new world of technologically assisted image phantoms may have been a latent ghost imbedded within the modernist project.
But the exhibition contains another work that points us in a different direction. It is titled Pictures of Paper (color): Vase of Flowers with Pocket Watch after Willem Van Aelst (all of the works in the series are called “Pictures of Paper [color]”). Using the same technique as is evidenced in the other works, it is a reproduction of a reproduction of a Vanitas still-life by the famous 17th century Dutch master, which is to say that it references a different kind of floating world, one where the bounty of life flourishes but for a fleeting moment before its runs out of the precious time allotted to it by fate. Despite the fact that, in visual terms, this is the richest of all the works in the exhibition, it is also the one that most clearly intimates an oblique and disquieting connection with the morality of mortality.
With the single exception of the above-mentioned still-life image, the rest of Muniz’s new works suggest that it would be better if we would greet the circus of appearances with a smile of happy confidence in the brave new world’s capabilities for providing visual enjoyment-as-simple-enjoyment, because the world of original meaning has been lost to artistic hands. But maybe not to the literary mind. Two books come to mind. The first is a large catalog raisonné of Muniz’s works recently edited by Pedro Correa de Lago and published by Capivara Press, within which is chronicled every detail of the artist’s three decades of using unconventional materials to joust with various art historical assumptions, and another somewhat older book titled Reflex: a Vik Muniz Primer, that being a semi-autobiographical, semi-philosophical and fully humorous exercise in artistic self-explanation—possibly the best “artist’s statement” to have been written since the time of Benvenuto Cellini’s famous autobiography.
–MARK VAN PROYEN
Vik Muniz: Pictures on Paper (color) @ Rena Bransten Gallery through October 23, 2010.