Vik Muniz Dan Bernier Gallery, Los Angeles
Primarily, Vik Muniz's photographs are no different from other photographs, documenting as they do a subject or scene in a particular moment from a particular viewpoint. In actuality, however, these photos play odd games with the boundary between artist, subject, object, and image. In works like 18,000 yards (lake), one is presented with what appears to be densely scribbled illustrations of outdoor scenes in silhouette. Upon closer inspection, however, one finds each drawing to be a photograph of oodles of sewing thread carefully laid out against a white background to resemble a drawing.
In a series entitled "The Sugar Children," Muniz has arranged granules of sugar against a black background (using the varying density of the granules to create a spectrum of grays) to create portraits of the children of sugar plantation workers. The sweet images are then photographed and presented as what resembles colorblind pointillist paintings, or Chuck Close's fingerprint portraits.
Another group of works includes six line drawings of both common and semi-mythical objects--a chair, an American Tourister suitcase, Van Gogh's bed. And if you haven't already guessed, the drawings aren't really drawings. They are photographs of steel wire twisted into frontal, flat sculptures which, when placed against a white background, appear as pencil lines. Muniz has cleverly twisted wires around one another in key spots to create the illusion of a sketcher's hatch marks.
The final group of images in the show are a series of abstract silhouettes of animals, which one very quickly recognizes as photographs of shadow puppets. This time, you might have gotten the photograph part right, but you soon realize you missed the fact that what you are actually looking at are not photographs of shadows, but photographs printed using x-rays of the artist's actual hands as negatives. Silhouettes of the artist's bones are revealed within the larger shadow forms.
Upon a primary stroll around the room, all of this, though clever, might seem awfully formulaic: a one-trick pony trying to split his own hairs. A second look, however, reveals that Muniz has taken the hardest way out. We have the evidence that the artist had access to photography equipment. With the exception of Van Gogh's bed, just about every subject in the show could easily have been accessed by the artist (and in many cases he seems to have experienced his subjects firsthand). Muniz could have simply taken straight photographs of his subjects and asked his audience to accept them (and we would have) on such terms. This being the case, making mechanically-produced images of transient handiwork--intended to represent handmade images of the original subjects--seems a long way to go just to pull off a hat trick.
But this work isn't about tricks. It certainly isn't wizardry, and if Muniz has plans of being a magician, he had best either stop tipping his hand so overtly, or hang onto his day job as an artist. In the end, these works seem to ask us to take issue with how they are made, so that we question our own ideas about art and perception. If we toss this work into the category of so much smoke-and-mirrors, then we might as well dispense with the whole history of putting pen, paint, or light, to paper. After all, mannerism is not so much a mere period or approach as it is an undercurrent of the whole enterprise of art. Special effects, no matter how Spielbergian, are not cause to fall for or walk out on a work of art. Effects, including brush licks and pencil marks, are just tools. Muniz is doing what all image-makers do (that is, build) and he chooses and manipulates his tools just fine.
Los Angeles, California