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In his case, an artist's words are worth a thousand pictures

June 08, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — The 15-year survey of photographs by Brazilian-born, New York-based Conceptual artist Vik Muniz is a first for me. I left the show, newly opened at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, thinking the work is lightweight, a thin if sometimes clever gloss on long-established conventions, mostly derivative of Pop Art.

Then I read the catalog.

Muniz wrote it, and it's wonderful. In an unusual move, the touring survey's organizer, Florida's Miami Museum of Art, engaged the artist to write the accompanying book, rather than making it a curatorial task. Published in 2005 by Aperture, "Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer" is an anecdotal introduction to the artist, his life and his approach to understanding images, wide-ranging in its interests and witty in execution. I still find the photographs to be lightweight, but the thoroughly engaging book made me wonder whether Muniz hadn't missed his literary calling.

Muniz is most widely known for reproducing famous art images in such perishable substances as ketchup, peanut butter, marinara sauce and chocolate syrup. For instance, a famous Hans Namuth picture of Jackson Pollock painting in his studio was loosely copied in chocolate syrup, which he then photographed and greatly enlarged.

The action motif of a drip painting made from drippy, perishable material was pretty well picked clean a couple of decades ago by Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol in such paintings as "Annie Poured From Maple Syrup" and the "Oxidation" series. Muniz's chocolate Pollock is like a deluxe souvenir snapshot of past glories, which satisfies today's art market saturation and the easy lust for collectibles.

The show is large, with 173 images on view, but essentially the same note gets played repeatedly. As an artist, Muniz is a bit like the guy who makes sculptures of the Empire State Building and the Venus de Milo out of thousands of toothpicks, while the photographs recall the recurrent discovery of the Virgin Mary's profile on pieces of toast and mold-stained walls. Putting scores of curiosities together in one big show lessens rather than heightens whatever oddity each individual work might possess.

One series, titled "Equivalents," consists of black-and-white photographs of cotton torn into suggestive shapes -- snail, teapot, pig, man in a rowboat. Pictured against a blank background, they're titled to recall Alfred Stieglitz's 1920s Symbolist photographs of clouds. They make a fond joke about the distracting pleasures of daydreaming before photographs.

The cotton pictures also refer to the 19th century rage for spirit photographs and other falsified images purporting to show ghosts. They tell you not to believe what you see in pictures, which is always good advice.

"Illusions as bad as mine make people aware of the fallacies of visual information," Muniz says in a statement posted on the wall at the show's entry. The lesson is worth learning -- but by now it has pretty much become a platitude. He might as easily have declared that art is a lie that tells the truth.

Yet even with Stieglitz as an erudite visual footnote, the self-referential quality of cotton balls as clouds doesn't elaborate a truth that warrants much reflection. As art, it's a kind of photographic solipsism -- I picture things, therefore I am.

Muniz came to the United States from Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1983, when he was 22. To get acquainted with his new country, he bought a used copy of the classic magazine picture book "The Best of Life." Some of the show's earliest works derive from that source.

When he lost the Life book, Muniz made pencil-and-ink drawings of what the photographs looked like in his memory -- John-John Kennedy at his father's funeral, the moon walk, murder at Kent State. He also added others, such as the televised standoff between a student and a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

The drawings are generalized. Their figures are often distorted or warped. Muniz photographed the drawings in soft focus, blurring direct evidence of the artist's touch. The photographs, not the drawings, are what he displays.

The work means to visualize the uneasy collision of mass media, individual memory and social history that goes into our distinctly contemporary experience of an image-filled world. But the result looks like a student project, weaned on examples by major artists as diverse as Warhol and Ruscha in the 1960s, John Baldessari in the 1970s and Sherrie Levine and Mike Kelley in the early 1980s. The photographs are well-informed but not very distinctive.

Muniz originally set out to be a sculptor. Making "Individuals" (1992-93), a set of 52 photogravures, changed his mind.

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