by Mark Van Proyen
In a recent series of nine mid- to large-scale collage/photograph hybrids (all 2020), Vik Muniz explores, unpacks and makes sophisticated sport of the modernist notion of surface fetishism. Ever since Maurice Denis defined painting as “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order,” and Oscar Wilde proclaimed surface “the great revealer,” and Frank Stella declared “What you see is what you see,” the idea of surface has operated as a core principle of artistic practice throughout most of the 20th century. Only at the end of that century did the metaphysics of presence come into question, leading to redefinitions of it as something as of a theatrical mask, often concealing more than it reveals. Newer definitions have re-cast the idea of surface as a screen that filters selective aspects of representational experience into unconscious or self-conscious vectors. Some would say that this new emphasis makes politics unavoidable, while others say the jury is still out on this point.
All of these factors come into play in Muniz’s new works, which can be seen as playful exercises in anti-didactic didacticism. The play of references contained within them appeals to both sophisticated art viewers and to those unencumbered by such knowledge — they display part of their meaning on their visible “sleeves” while keeping other parts concealed. In this regard, Muniz’s art is slyly contronymic, a word that refers to how some terms can have two opposing meanings. His works shape shift before our eyes, oscillating between graphic stability and allusive destabilization.
The methods by which the artist achieves these effects are not easy to describe. He starts by applying richly colored paint to various surfaces, usually in a loose, brushy manner. He photographs them at very high resolution and outputs the results to a pigment printer. He then arranges these “surfaces” into various configurations and repeats the process in a way that emphasizes the telltale drop shadows. To all of this, he adds collaged elements, the results of which fit seamlessly with the other two layers, so seamlessly that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the manipulated photographs of drop shadows and the actual shadows cast by overlapping layers of photographic prints. Robert Heinecken’s famous definition of photography being “not a picture of, but an object about” seems to apply to these new works (as well as much of Muniz’s previous work).
Still, there’s yet another layer that completes these works’ conceptual operations.It’s the works’ skewed and oblique evocations of well-known high-modernist mannerisms. For example, in works like Shattered and Topo, we see hat tips to Analytic Cubism. In Black and White (after Otto Freundlich) and Ripples, the nod goes to the early Italian Futurism of Carlo Carra. The late work of Stuart Davis is conjured in Vidigal 2 and Gibi, while Dunes appears as a worthy homage to Edward Weston’s classical photographs of that same subject. One of the larger works in the exhibition, Haru (after Burle Marx),pays homage to the painter and iconic landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-94), whose influence on public space in Brazil, Muniz’s native country, was immense. Muniz, who spent his first 25 years there and now divides his time between New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo, most likely cut his teeth on the Neo-Concrete movement, an oblique, locally formed version of pre-war European abstraction. In recent years, artists associated with that movement, such as Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, have received major retrospectives at New York museums.
In his new works, Muniz doesn’t pay homage to that movement as much as make strategic attempts to simultaneously annotate, update and undermine it, bringing himself closer to those sources — and more distant from them.
# # #
Vik Muniz: “Surfaces” @ Rena Bransten Gallery through August 15, 2020. By appointment only.
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.