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The artist's eye plays tricks

Photographer Vik Muniz likes to subvert his ideas from within while letting the audience in on the joke.

June 17, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

La Jolla — VIK MUNIZ has a soft spot for bad acting. An actor who performs brilliantly disappears into the role he plays. But when that transformation isn't so deft, actor and character continually oscillate; one recedes as the other comes forward. For Muniz, a photographic trickster who aspires to "the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eye," that slippage is far richer than a seamless performance.

Watching something pass for something else is more enticing when the mechanics of the trick are showing, he feels, when the audience not only enjoys the performance but also is conscious of its nature as performance. His work aims to set in motion just such a perceptual dance.

Among the 100-plus photographs in "Vik Muniz: Reflex," a survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, are images of the Mona Lisa rendered in peanut butter and jam, a landscape by Corot redrawn in black thread, an installation shot of a Minimalist sculpture remade in dust and debris, a portrait of a young boy in military uniform made up entirely of brightly colored plastic toy soldiers. All of Muniz's images are recognizable. Either the subjects are familiar, everyday objects (binoculars, toilet paper, teapot) or they're art historical icons. Each is re-created in unconventional materials, then photographed.

"I tap a lot into a poster-store kind of iconography," Muniz says, walking through the La Jolla show, his grayish-blue eyes a bit bleary after the previous night's opening festivities. "Basically, it's a move toward more abstract ideas without having to go through the problem of abstraction, which leaves people out.

"I find it very funny, when people meet an artist and ask if their work is abstract or representational -- as if there couldn't be anything in the middle. One thing feeds the other. For me, what's beautiful is the shift between something you recognize and something you don't know."

Muniz says he doesn't believe in still pictures, and there's a certain self-referential logic to the claim. Compact and boyish at 45, he is always gesturing, demonstrating, his speech and movements persistently animated. Pictures aren't static, he explains, because we move around them and what we see changes depending on our distance. Looking at Monet's vast canvases from several feet away, we see the waterlilies; up close we see only paint.

"You cannot ever have both at the same time," Muniz says. "You have to choose, which is empowering. The moment you cross the threshold between the material and the mental, that's a sublime transformation."

Making art out of what he calls "stupid things" widens the gap to be crossed and, he hopes, intensifies that transformation, charging it with the element of surprise. His version of Monet's aqueous icon is a photographed collage of colored hole punches from glossy magazines. From a distance, the flower and plant shapes cohere; from close by they read as a vast spread of vibrant dots -- the bad actor seizing the stage and relinquishing it, seizing and relinquishing.

Working with ketchup

BORN in 1961 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Muniz moved to the U.S. in 1983 and landed in New York the following year, during the heyday of appropriationism. Art critical dialogue was thick with theories on the death of originality. He started making sculpture, but by the end of the decade, he was showing only photographs, and his work had assumed most of the chief characteristics it still retains: engagement with collective memory, serious flirtation with illusion and a determined mix of the high and the humble.

He drew well-known photographs (an astronaut on the moon, the lone resister in Tiananmen Square) from memory, then photographed them with a slight blur, so the images read as materially ambiguous but still instantly recognizable. He started to adopt such unlikely materials as chocolate syrup, ketchup, wire and caviar to fashion familiar images, which he would then photograph. He made portraits of the children of sugar cane workers out of white sugar meticulously drizzled over black paper. After each image was photographed, the sugar was swept away in the manner of a Tibetan Buddhist sand painting.

Muniz, who maintains studios in Brooklyn and Rio de Janeiro, considers himself an heir to Andy Warhol, and his recycling of known images (including many by Warhol, which themselves are copies of other artworks) certainly has its roots in Pop. But other strains from the '60s and '70s also influence his practice. An emphasis on process is key to his work, and each of his images represents a unique, transient performance. The photograph is the only enduring trace of the action.

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