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Making Sense of Vik Muniz

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Even by conceptual art standards, Vik Muniz's photographs can seem a little zany, beyond the pale. A trickster and shape-shifter who both typifies and defies contemporary art conventions, he has blazed to global art stardom in recent years, appearing in the most prestigious shows in this country and abroad. This Saturday we can see for ourselves what makes Vik tick as the Contemporary Arts Center premieres its Vik Muniz: Seeing Is Believing retrospective as part of this year's Art For Art's Sake festivities.

It's a show that reflects his overall approach to art making as well as his transformation from a Brazilian emigre jack-of-all-trades to a hot aesthetic commodity in an age of vagueness about art's mission and meaning. In that sense, he typifies postmodernism even as he seems to be having a grand old time taking it none too seriously. That much was evident in his early Best of Life series. Created between 1988 and 1990, it's a collection that showcases his remarkably photographic memory and, ironically, his drawing skills. They are, in fact, photographs of his drawings.

Although it never occurred to him to become an artist while he was growing up in a working-class family in Sao Paulo, Muniz drew compulsively anyway, and his flair for near-photographic shadowing is evident in these "memory drawings" from his recollections of famous Life magazine photographs. Images like Memory Rendering of Man on the Moon or Memory Rendering of Saigon Execution resemble darkly grainy renditions of famous old Time/Life news photos, or maybe pirated versions of those images as they might appear in some low-tech provincial publication. By photographing his own photographic-looking drawings, Muniz throws the whole context into confusion, causing us to try to decipher not just the subject but the whole web of media embodied in the final image.

Memory Rendering of Tram Bang is Muniz's version of that horrendously awful photo of the naked little Vietnamese girl with flames all around, running down the road to escape the napalm. Here again, the immediacy recalls the original, though the over-dark rendering makes the girl look more Brazilian than Vietnamese. An arresting, yet enigmatic, image. If Muniz's methods were baffling at the outset, they got more whimsical as he went along. Unlike Memory Renderings, his Pictures of Wire are often charming. Works like Candle, Faucet or Lightbulb are just what the titles suggest -- images of a candle, a faucet or a light bulb, only rendered in wire. Here Muniz uses his hands to shape wire into forms that strikingly resemble not just line drawings, but whimsically witty line drawings, some with evocative titles like Upside Down Chair or Van Gogh's Bed. In fact, they look rather like Andy Warhol's early pen-and-ink illustrations despite being photographs.

The quirkiness continues in The Sugar Children, a series of photographic portraits of sugar cane workers' children on the island of St. Kitts. But in this case they are photographs of the portraits he made on location, using granulated sugar on black paper to create the messy, if evocative, originals -- images with the quasi-crude aura of folk art -- which he then photographed. But his Photographs of Chocolate may be his most impressively convoluted achievement to date, as we see in Action Photo 1 (After Hans Namuth), a photo of a Muniz drawing of one of Hans Namuth's famous photos of Jackson Pollock in an early 1950s Life magazine.

Muniz's print is a nice color Cibachrome and his drawing was rendered in Bosco chocolate syrup, which lends itself rather nicely to his almost tactile interplay of light and shadow. It makes for a zany photograph of an interesting drawing of a documentary photo of the maniacal maestro raptly splattering paint with his usual drunken precision. So what we have here is something that satisfies the academic postmodern checklist in that it appropriates something from art history as it focuses our attention on its context and the processes used to make it, so it is obviously a "construct" (as postmodernists like to label everything, including yo' mama!).

Despite all that, Muniz goes beyond the predictable postmodern truisms with his quirky facility and slight of hand, a showmanship reminiscent of old-time magic acts, Mister Wizard's science show on early TV, and assorted stuff like that. Rather than beating the old postmodern horse yet one more time, he slathers it in Bosco and has it do tricks, some zany, some perhaps a little lame, but on balance not half-bad. And for that much we can be grateful.

Chocolatey delicious: Vik Muniz's Photographs of Chocolate series include Action Photo 1 (After Hans Namuth), named after Hamuth's Life magazine shots of Jackson Pollock at work.
  • Chocolatey delicious: Vik Muniz's Photographs of Chocolate series include Action Photo 1 (After Hans Namuth), named after Hamuth's Life magazine shots of Jackson Pollock at work.

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