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I’ve always been resistant to Vik Muniz’s brand of merry prankster photography. His pictures, while entertaining, witty, crafty, and even a little amazing, have always seemed like souvenirs—equivalents to images of the Brooklyn Bridge made from bottle caps or strips of bacon. In an exhibition career that has spanned a little more than a decade, this 40-year-old, Brazilian-born neoconceptualist has defined himself as a prestidigitator of the medium—a virtuoso whose manipulations have almost nothing to do with photography.
Muniz makes trompe l’oeil photos out of ephemeral materials that often bear some relationship to what they depict. He’s created pictures of clouds from cotton, earth from ashes, a table-top Spiral Jetty from soil, the children of sugarcane workers out of sugar, and a hideous dinner plate bearing the likeness of Medusa rendered in spaghetti and meatballs. Last month, he had skywriters draw cartoon clouds over Manhattan. Sometimes, Muniz stretches the connection and things fall apart, as in his representations of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Beuys in chocolate syrup, a Caspar David Friedrich painting limned in dirt, or the images of objects made from wire—in homage to Calder, perhaps. My favorite series involves landscapes made of thread, sometimes as much as 20,000 yards of it. In these works—which are derived from photos or well-known paintings—the connections aren’t so literal or simple, they’re intuitive and enticing. The pictures have a density of thought, a mystery of purpose, so he comes off as more than clever.
This cleverness is at the core of my resistance. There’s something a little too efficient or obvious about many of his connections; once you’ve made them there’s little left. The pictures are like gags. Artistically, he relates to squirrelly popularizers of conceptual art like Tim Hawkinson and Tom Sachs, and even to a genuine genie of material like Tom Friedman. But Muniz rarely rises above buggy eccentricity or pixilated ingenuity. Subject matter too often takes a backseat to process, and these foxy processes regularly turn into little skits and elaborate exercises. Muniz is like a contortionist in a circus: He does these marvelous tricks with material because he can.
In the last few years however, this Energizer Bunny of an artist has mounted a full frontal exhibition assault on New York and worn down some of my resistance. In addition to an enchanting new movie about him, Worst Possible Illusion: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz, he was in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and his 1998 retrospective at the International Center of Photography was solid. Better were last season’s dual solo shows of quick-witted, fabricated newspaper clippings at Ubu and, at Brent Sikkema, the screwball ink-drawing photographs of Nadia Comaneci, Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother, and the Hindenburg explosion, as well as the Chuck Close-like portraits of Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel.
Now, with “The Things Themselves: Pictures of Dust” at the Whitney, Muniz has created his tightest circle of back-and-forth referencing to date. This concise exhibition consists of nine handsome, large-scale photographs based on installation shots of artwork in the museum’s galleries. Each photo begins as a drawing made by the artist using dust and detritus gathered from the Whitney’s floors, but that’s only the first ring of connections. The artwork in these pictures are all minimalist and postminimalist—prime examples of the art movements involving materials that first got very real and then began to fall apart. Thus, there’s an entropic corollary to Muniz’s work, as well as his trademark visual punning. We see a Donald Judd stack piece, a Carl Andre floor work, Richard Serra’s Prop, and Tony Smith’s Die—all icons, all rendered in dust. Muniz equates these hardcore tough guys with the Whitney itself, a museum designed and built in the ’60s style known as brutalist. Additionally he likens the dust of the institution with the ephemeral nature of art movements. This tongue-in-cheek, ashes-to-ashes memorializing gives these pictures a tangy aftertaste.
The best work here is the largest: a 12-foot diptych depicting a Barry Le Va scatter piece from 1967. Possessing its own kind of shaggy-dog, heebie-jeebie beauty, the Muniz is a rat’s nest of a thing and reminds you that Le Va’s original had that kind of bite. Rendered in feathers, hair, cobwebs, paint chips, pencil shavings, soot, sand, gravel, and clumps of who knows what, this work really makes you wonder what goes on in museums. Details like brownish-colored dirt or tan paper make the photo look like it’s been hand tinted.
But something else makes Muniz’s show work—something unintentional. Wonderful, corny calliope music drifts in from Calder’s Circus in the gallery next door and gives Muniz’s fidgety art some much needed grounding, whimsical resonance, and looseness. Calder—a populist—is an original. The inventor of the mobile, he had his own dippy sense of color, scale, and play. Whatever you think of it, Calder’s art is almost always joyous. Until recently, Muniz’s has been tense, detached, or clownish—controlled and shrewd, perhaps, but airtight and a little closed off. This exhibition suggests Muniz is relaxing a bit and allowing the connections to spin out further.