An artist who's called himself a "low-tech illusionist," Vik Muniz is a combination of Houdini and a Harvard semiotician, concerned with illustrating -- in the most entertaining way possible -- how our ideas about the world are constructed and calculated in ways we rarely examine. Using our image-saturated world as his jumping-off point, Muniz offers rich commentary on how photography presumes to give us a picture of "reality." With his unusual manipulation of materials -- dirt or chocolate or thread -- arranged into landscapes or portraits, Muniz forces us to examine just what we are looking at and how our eyes are fooled by the camera, which promises to deliver the truth.
In his 1990 "Best of Life" series, Muniz made drawings of famous photojournalist images -- V-J day in Times Square or a naked Vietnamese girl running to escape a napalm attack -- which he then photographed. The grainy, dreamy "memory renderings" are thus familiar, but somehow "off," and they force us to struggle to locate the "original" reference point in Muniz's circuitous, playful send-up of the elusiveness of photographic truth.
Like professional novelty artists who can paint the Virgin Mary on a grain of rice, or the shut-in who labors over an exact replica of the Mona Lisa in kidney beans, Brazilian-born, N.Y.-based Muniz is a conceptual hobbyist, an artist who brings a razor wit and rigorous intellect to bear on projects that question our cultural trust in the almighty image. That rarest of high falutin' art world superbrains, Muniz is known for creating work that isn't so lost in the jargon of its own creation that it has lost its sense of humor or ability to delight.
"I take humor very seriously," says Muniz, speaking by telephone from New York before his trip to Atlanta for the opening of his solo show, Repartee, at the Atlanta College of Art gallery. "It's a way to get an idea much further into the brain of the viewer because you open him or her up to that idea. If you have images that are tragic by nature, immediately your brain raises a defense."
On Jan. 25, this renowned artist will bring his wry, clever cabinet of wonders to Atlanta for an exhibition curated by Rebecca Dimling Cochran at the Atlanta College of Art gallery. Mixed in with a sampling of Muniz's own work will be a room devoted to Muniz's personal collection of 19th century "photographs of drawings and drawings of photographs," and 19th century optical toys like camera lucidas (an early drawing aid that was a precursor to the camera), basically "things that have to do with vision."
Muniz's work impels viewers to linger and decipher the images, when, for the most part, we are used to scanning and discarding hundreds of images quickly and casually on a daily basis. We have an inherent faith in visuals and in the printed page, a faith Muniz aims to challenge with his prankish disruptions of both. In a series of work called "Personal Articles," Muniz created elaborately fake newspaper stories with ludicrous headlines like, "Mexican bullfighter awarded Guggenheim fellowship." Muniz has viewers question the authority of the newspaper by showing how easily its conventions can be manipulated.
Muniz's reputation as an artist (he had a solo show at the International Center of Photography and has one forthcoming at the Whitney Museum of Art) is based not only on the originality of his ideas, but on their execution. In one of his bodies of work, "Pictures of Thread" (1995-98), Muniz replicated other artists' images -- Claude Lorrain, Courbet -- using thousands of feet of thread, envisioning the painterly landscape as an obsessive craft project.
Though his work is often sculptural or drawing-based, Muniz works principally as a photographer because he documents every new work in a photographic image. For Muniz, the photographic process "endorses the existence of things," and because he generally destroys the object he makes (licking the chocolate away or reforming cotton into another cloud), he illustrates photography's effort to capture the ephemeral, to arrest a moment lost to time. Of his choice of decaying, biodegradable materials like chocolate or spices, Muniz says, "I pick things that look like they will just crumble and disappear after the photograph is taken, because you photograph something that's happening at that particular time, and it won't happen again the next second after."
Muniz's real start in art was in the realm of advertising in his native Brazil where he put into practice many of the ideas -- of seducing the viewer, of creating illusions that would speak to unconscious desires -- that he would later upend in his art-making.
"When you have training in commercial art, you become aware of all these tricks and mechanisms because you're using them for practical [purposes]," says Muniz.
"My training in advertising has a lot to do with what I do today. But as a matter of principle, I think I do something that works almost in an opposite direction to what advertising images do. My work operates a little like a vaccine. It has all the features, all the poisons of an advertising image, but it works in a different way. It's supposed to create more antibodies. It helps you create defenses against the images you can find in the media environment."
Muniz is interested in the illusory aspect of representation -- how a Chuck Close portrait is really just an arrangement of colored dots or how the Impressionists ("the first conceptual art we had," he says) were able to evoke a landscape through a chaotic interplay of brush strokes. Meaning is all in the mind's eye, a bargain struck between the thing viewed and the viewer, and something this artist means to challenge.
Vik Muniz: Repartee runs Jan. 25-March 11 at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Muniz will lecture Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Rich Auditorium, Woodruff Arts Center. Admission free. 404-733-5052.
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
"In response to Oydave's comment, "Look at the two pieces. Is the second a rip-off…
Tons of Atlanta artists use colorful geometric shapes. But to copy the exact colors, the…
In response to Oydave's comment, "Look at the two pieces. Is the second a rip-off…
I know Kombo. He's a stand up guy and would not use this element in…