On my recent trip to New York City, I saw dozens of galleries and work from hundreds of artists. The contemporary artwork being shown was heavy with content or craft and, on occasion, both content and craft. But it was not until I viewed Vik Muniz’s show at P.S.1 that I saw work that contained content, craft and the ever-elusive third element of art…fun. This is what I consider to be a trifecta of success in imagery.
Muniz’s show at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center is a selection from a larger exhibition organized by Miami Art Museum and curated by Peter Boswell. It includes photographs from each of the artist’s major series, as edited by the artist, P.S.1 Director Alanna Heiss, and Boswell.
Technically, Muniz could be labeled as a photographer. That is to say, the work he displays is photographs. But he is a photographer in the vein of Goldsworthy, as his true art is in the creation and temporal product being photographed. The first photograph to greet the view in this show is a portrait. As you get closer to the large print you realize that the entire portrait is composed of thousands of hole punch remains. It was impressive, yes, but I was wondering if a feat like this could continue, escalate or falter as I reached the rest of his show. The next photograph was a reproduction of Goya’s Saturn devouring one of his Sons. The medium used was “junk”. This junk was scattered around until it formed the shapes to mimic the original composition. As I looked closer I realized the scale of this project. There were objects like car doors, 55 gallon drums and ladders. I can’t even imagine the time, skill and space necessary for it’s completion!
One series of prints consisted of reproducing famous photographs with chocolate syrup. The Hans Namuth action photo of Jackson Pollock especially lent itself to this medium. Not only did I marvel at the skill in reproducing such detail with an unconventional medium, but I also became very hungry for chocolate. (It is rumored that Muniz actually eats his chocolate paintings after they have been photographed)
The “fun” aspect and “craft” aspect of these photographs had sucked me in, but you may be asking, “What about the content? Aren’t these just gimmicky photos?” Well, he also had representations from series such as Sugar Children where he reproduced his own photographs of children of sugar-cane workers. He did so by pouring white sugar onto black paper, creating a multitude of values in the image. Is this the ultimate irony of the medium? The product from workers experiencing terrible conditions isn’t even used for consumption. Instead, the sugar, the product of their labor, is used to form images of the other product of their labor—their own children.
Pictures of Ink takes the idea of image reproduction to another level. His technique is that of newspaper and magazine printing methods. He uses ink in halftone patterns to construct famous photographs mass produced by the media. His ink is placed on a surface that does not absorb letting the ink pool into itself and creating light reflections that illustrate the three-dimensionality of the texture. The photos in this exhibition were Terrorist(the well-known image of a terrorist peering over a balcony in Munich during the 1972 Olympics), Monster(the most published photo of the Loch Ness Monster) and Disaster(the explosion of the Hindenberg). Viewed up close, you can see the detail in each dot but as you further yourself from the print, the image becomes one you have seen thousands of times. The oddest aspect of this series is reflected in his titling. With his other works he places the name of the original creator in the title. This time he does not. Does this image appropriation seem a little unfair? These are by far the most recognizable to the public. Perhaps they are so ingrained into our culture that they become the property of our society as a whole, but very few people can actually name the original photographer, whereas those who recognize an image created by Caravaggio can instantly name the artist. When I think of image appropriation, I have always put it in the context of artist-to-artist. I am now conscious that images can be appropriated by the culture of society.
As I dealt the heavy cultural ramifications of his choices, I stepped to the next photograph—that of a cartoon cloud created by a skywriter over the skyline of Manhattan. The “fun” overwhelmed me again. The absurdity of a cartoon drawing of cloud in the sky recalls the tradition of Oldenburg creating ridiculously large ordinary objects, poking fun at the seriousness surrounding the abstract artists in the middle of the 1900’s. Dirt, sugar, string, junk, chocolate syrup, diamonds, caviar, pennies, wire, shadows, plastic army men, dust, pigment. Muniz is adept at using any of these as a medium to produce what he calls “the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eyes of the average person”. I disagree with his choice of words. While his illusion-making may not be revolutionary, it is my far some of the most fun. So let me say that he is skilled at making the most enjoyable illusion that will still fool the eyes of the average person.