by David M. Roth
At this point in his 35-year career, there are few art-historical epochs and materials that Vik Muniz hasn’t employed to create pictures. Though he’s nominally identified as a photographer, photography accounts for the least of his labors, most of which, as of late, have involved collages made of painted paper (or magazine images) that he photographs, cuts up, assembles and rephotographs in such a way as to render distinctions between media and methods difficult to identify. In short, Muniz has made a career out of taking apart and reconstructing the methods by which other artists have represented reality. “Painting” with peanut butter, jelly, marinara sauce, dust, wire, sugar, machine parts, garbage and postcards, are just some of the materials he’s used to call attention to the gulf that exists between the material reality of images and the images of familiar works of art we hold in our minds.
“Every material allows you the opportunity to make art with a completely different process,” he told a San Francisco audience in 2017. “It widens your scope of what art making can be. If what I make doesn’t look like a masterpiece, that’s because they weren’t meant to be; they’re all experimental: trying to figure out what something can be.”
His latest effort involves Cubism, the movement that forever established perception as a wholly subjective experience, dependent on how you look and where you stand. For this exhibition, Fotocubismo, an extension of his Surfaces series, Muniz draws not just on the usual suspects — Picasso, Braque Gris, and Leger — but on its theoretical mastermind, Jean Metzinger, who made geometric abstraction the movement’s fundamental building block.
Casual observers who know nothing of Muniz might peg these nine works as canny bits of appropriation, especially when viewed at a distance. But here, as in most things, the devil resides in the details, and in this exhibition, the sheer number of them, piled up in readily discernable layers — cut, torn and painted — will leave you reeling if you stop to catalog them. What allows us to do so is the fact that these works are not, as in prior series, photographs of collages but, actual collages. As such, they make visible the manipulations of materials that might otherwise be obscured or diminished by the flattening effects of photography. Even so, photography, as it always does with Muniz, plays a vital role in sowing confusion about the material identity of every aspect of these pictures, owing, in large measure, to high-resolution photographic prints of collaged elements and bits of paper that, when painted to realistically depict identifiable objects, make it difficult to tell what’s what.
Take, for example, Muniz’s remake of Juan Gris’ Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth (1915). Those familiar with the original will note that Muniz has substituted Brussels sprouts for grapes as the picture’s centerpiece. The real excitement, however, rests with a seemingly more trivial aspect: how Muniz chose to represent the painted dots that decorate the tablecloth and background in Gris’ original. Some show up as perforated lengths of paper, made presumably, with a mechanical hole punch. Others are photos of those same objects, while still others are bits of trompe l’oeil. Combined, they elicit deep looks, which conspire to further destabilize a painting meant to fracture the normal view of things. Muniz’s version of Picasso’s Bottle, Guitar and Pipe (1912-13), in which the subjects are largely subsumed in a mélange of geometric shapes, also hews close to the original. Here again, a seemingly insignificant detail – a drop shadow near the center – commanded my attention. Was it painted, and if so, how was the gradient achieved? Dodging and burning with Photoshop? Or, did the artist photograph a shadow cast by piled-up layers of paper and simply add the photographic print to the existing mix? Such questions cropped up repeatedly as I toured the show – trying to determine how textures, colors and visible sub-surface layers combined to create coherent facsimiles of familiar paintings that, in their original iterations, evoked the intersection of multiple planes in a single dimension.
Muniz, who is dyslexic, initially learned to read by recognizing the visual patterns formed by letters. To his eye, they were essentially pictographic symbols, not phonetic guideposts — something he discovered only after starting grade school. That experience, and the visual acuity he acquired, stayed with him, forming the basis of his ability to wrest recognizable images out of unlikely materials and abstract shapes. The urge to continue that quest he also attributes to growing up in Brazil during that country’s years of military dictatorship, when official statements were subject to intense scrutiny, and to a brief stint in advertising, where the subversion of widely recognized symbols are essential tools of the trade. Landing in the New York’s East Village after immigrating from Brazil, played a role, too, music in particular, where sampling was a vital part of the then-emerging hip-hop and electronic music scenes.
A key discovery about visual semantics came later when he happened upon Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise (1403) in Florence. Ghiberti, according to the artist, achieved a revolutionary breakthrough when he combined two forms of representation, haute relief and three-point perspective. “The combination of the two approaches,” he writes in his spellbinding autobiography, Reflex: A Vick Muniz Primer, “overwhelms the senses and confuses the eye, which, unable to decide what language to follow, is arrested in the surface of the picture. The uneasiness of shifting focus … generates a pictorial experience of transcendental proportions: a new way of looking at an image. By combining a three-dimensional element and a pictorial one, and engaging in two different techniques, Ghiberti spliced two readings of the images into one — an impossible task for the senses to follow. In so doing, he forces the viewer to become aware of the image’s syntax, to assume an active role in the apprehension of the image.”
The word, apprehension, he went on to note, “means capture, arrest and control, making something your own – but it also means hesitation, trepidation and uneasiness.” Fotocubismo elicits all those feelings and more. Its contents, along with those of a half dozen earlier works displayed separately in an adjoining room, make us complicit in our own illusions, accomplices to the artist’s astonishing sleight of hand.
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Vik Muniz: “Fotocubismo” @ Rena Bransten Gallery through June 24, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.