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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

Muniz is dismayed that visual literacy is not high on the nation's curricular agenda in spite of the way images -- even more than words -- flood everyday life. "Nobody dismantles the grammar of pictures, nobody makes it transparent so people can see how it works. We're dealing with the face of the clock. Nobody wants to look at the back to see how the gears relate to one another. It always ends up to be the work of the artist to create some kind of awareness about this."

According to Muniz, countering the seductive, numbing effect of image saturation is an ethical responsibility. It's crucial, he feels, to jolt people into a state of alertness to the processes of perception.

Miami Art Museum senior curator Peter Boswell, who organized the "Reflex" exhibition, feels Muniz's picture-making strategies accomplish just that.

"When he uses an image you're familiar with, you think you already know it, and you do that first double-take when you realize it's not really the Monet or the Andy Warhol but it's someone dealing with that image," Boswell said by phone from his office.

"What he does is probe the original image and ask questions about it. I don't think I'll ever be able to see Andy Warhol's image of Mona Lisa again without thinking about Vik's image of it in peanut butter and jelly. Is that what Warhol did to the Mona Lisa -- make a peanut butter and jelly version of it? I think Vik is doing to Warhol what Warhol did to Leonardo. It's like two facing mirrors; you see endless depth between them."

Questions about depth

DEPTH, though, is not what every viewer -- or critic -- sees in Muniz's efforts. Though he has been hailed in print as a "smart provocateur" and his work described as "exquisitely crafted" and "devilishly funny," he has also been skewered by writers who find his work superficial, gimmicky, "clownish," more about "gamesmanship" than anything else.

Reviewing the "Reflex" exhibition for the Miami Sun Post last year, Franklin Einspruch dismissed Muniz as a clever poacher, hiding "behind technique, behind concepts, behind non-art materials, behind the filter of photography, behind other people's work." Muniz lacks inspiration of his own, the writer concluded, referring to what he judged a disappointing group of photographs of studio debris, a rare series not based on replicating the works of others. "It damns the work beyond redemption to realize that the artist is better when he's not being himself."

All great art is gimmicky to some extent, Muniz argues in his defense. It has to be visually engaging, and can get there by whatever means necessary.

"People don't take me seriously because there's humor in the work, as if humor was something that would take intelligence out. Having enough freedom with the way you put your ideas that you can subvert them from within -- this is humor. It's a powerful tool to get people into what you're doing or to attract people to what you're trying to say."

For someone whose work has been criticized as shallow, Muniz is extremely articulate about its position within the history of image-making and visual perception. He wrote the 200-page book that accompanies the exhibition, a memoir/manifesto rich in anecdote and broad in reach, studded with quotes from, among others, Aristotle, Oscar Wilde and Lily Tomlin, Marshall McLuhan, Michel Foucault and Charles Baudelaire, Jorge Luis Borges, Buckminster Fuller and Yogi Berra.

How seriously to take Muniz's work is, like the work itself, an ambiguous matter. The accessibility that draws people to the work also pushes others away.

"I think a lot of people in the art world, because it's their business and their passion, like to think that the really good work is really tough, tough to get. It's taken them a lifetime to get it," says curator Boswell. "Vik's is different from that. Anyone can get it at some level. I suspect that some of these people who accuse him of being superficial just aren't getting it," he laughs.

"It's insightful, complicated work. There are lots of aspects that I don't get. That's one of the things I like about it -- you can keep getting more from it."


`Vik Muniz: Reflex'

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Tuesdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays, closed Wednesdays.

Ends: Sept. 2

Price: Free to $10

Contact: (858) 454-3541,

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