Vik Muniz

February 28 - August 21, 2016


Wall text panels from the exhibition


Vik Muniz

Vik Muniz (Brazilian-American, born 1961) is distinguished as one of the most innovative and creative artists of our time. Endlessly playful and inventive in his approach, Muniz harnesses a remarkable virtuosity in creating his renowned "photographic delusions." Working with a dizzying array of unconventional materials -- including sugar, tomato sauce, diamonds, magazine clippings, chocolate syrup, dust, and junk -- Muniz painstakingly builds tableaux before recording them with his camera. From a distance, the subject of each resulting photograph is discernible; up close, the work reveals a complex and surprising matrix through which it was assembled. That revelatory moment when one thing transforms into another is of deep interest to the artist.

Muniz's work often quotes iconic images from popular culture and art history, drawing on our sense of collective memory while defying easy classification and mischievously engaging a viewer's process of perception. His more recent work incorporates electron microscopes and manipulates microorganisms to explore issues of scale while unveiling both the familiar and the strange in spaces that are typically inaccessible to the human eye. This major mid-career retrospective canvasses more than twenty-five years of Muniz's work to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, reminding us of the power of art to surprise, delight, and transform our perceptions of the world.


Early Work

Popular culture, and its resonance within our collective memory, has been of consistent interest to Muniz throughout his career. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he began exploring issues of celebrity and portraiture in his work, often experimenting with playful integrations of form and content.

Muniz crafted images of famous movie stars in diamonds, represented the renowned Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in chocolate syrup, portrayed the Cuban revolutionary icon Che Guevara in black beans, and cast the Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly in a witty reference to her exceptionally recognizable face.

Muniz also represented those who are normally overlooked. Using grains of sugar, he rendered portraits of children on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, whose weary families labored arduously for meager pay on the sugar cane plantations -- a reminder that the sweetest things in life can have bitter origins. In 2003, he began designing his first monumental works, conjuring recognizable subjects from hundreds of small objects as demonstrated nearby in his triptych of a soldier, American Indian, and horse built imaginatively from tiny toy soldiers.

Muniz's early interests in scale and perspective, wit and playfulness, fame and social consciousness, took root as conceptual threads that would crisscross throughout his career.


The Original Copy

Great artists of every age have copied the work of their predecessors and, in the act of appropriation, have created remarkably fresh originals with distinct identities. Muniz has continued this tradition of copying as a legitimate creative act, learning from his close study of centuries of artistic practice. In this gallery, he playfully and skillfully re-creates work by some of art history's greatest painters, harnessing a diverse set of materials to interpret compositions by Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, and Andy Warhol.

Muniz's use of junk and garbage as building materials for his compositions is particularly celebrated. To make his Pictures of Junk and Pictures of Garbage series, he placed his camera on a platform raised by a crane high above a warehouse floor. Using the open space below as a canvas, he arranged debris into sculptural compositions that re-created mythological scenes and famous paintings when seen from the camera's elevated vantage point. The resulting photographs remain the only permanent record of these marvelous creations.

Working on a smaller scale within the confines of his studio, he has similarly innovated with materials as diverse as magazine clippings, paint chips, paper, and pigment to compose images with astounding presence.


History of Photography

As an artist whose work normally concludes in the form of a photograph, Muniz has a deep fascination with the history of photography. He is keenly aware that photography, at its core, is both a documentary and artistic medium of expression, recording and shaping the way we see the world and acting as an agent of communication. Muniz has explored these concepts in several different series represented in this gallery.

In his Best of Life series, Muniz sketched from memory some of the most iconic press photos of the twentieth century, meditating on the ways these images sear themselves into the collective subconscious. He re-created Dorothea Lange's renowned Depression-era photograph Migrant Mother, using pooled ink in a dotted halftone formation to render the image in the same medium that catapulted it to fame in the printed press.

Likewise, Muniz has used paper, the material on which photographic images are printed, to reconstruct and meditate on key images by some of the twentieth century's most influential photographers, including Garry Winogrand and Weegee. In rendering these photographic originals by hand, Muniz ponders the role of the artist's hands in an age transformed by the photo-mechanical and, more recently, digital revolutions.

Ink and photo-chemicals are the last material substances still capable of playing a role in the dissemination of information.
-Vik Muniz


The World in a Grain of Sand

To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
-William Blake (British, 1757-1827)

The works in this gallery show Muniz playfully riffing on ideas of scale: making extremely large subjects appear small and representing particles invisible to the naked eye at enormous sizes. In blurring the line between these seemingly simple divisions, Muniz poses questions about the nature of perception.

In his Colonies and Sandcastles series, Muniz worked at a microscopic scale. For Colonies, Muniz trained cells -- including cancer cells, liver cells, and samples from his own cheek -- to grow into specific patterns, much as a gardener prunes plants to coax them into particular formations. Muniz collaborated with an MIT scientist to pull off a heroic feat in Sandcastles: they used lasers to carve images of castles onto single grains of sand. The resulting photographs are made through a high-powered microscope.

For his Earthworks series, Muniz took inspiration from Land Art (such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which is only fully visible from the sky). Muniz executed a series of drawings carved by bulldozers in vast landscapes and photographed them from a helicopter. He paired them with photographs of small-scale simulations of Land Art he made on a tabletop in his studio. It is exceedingly difficult to differentiate between the two when seeing them together, as they are displayed here, illustrating what Muniz calls "the gap between the scales of reality and representation."


Album and Postcards from Nowhere

In his recent Album and Postcards from Nowhere series, Muniz explores the physical traces that hold personal memories. In Album, he takes the time-honored tradition of the family snapshot as his subject. Each image in the series draws inspiration from familiar tropes found in family albums of the early twentieth century, like pictures of a child's first birthday party or the exterior of a suburban family home.

Muniz fastidiously builds replicas of these generic and familiar moments by collecting thousands of discarded snapshots, cutting them up into small pieces, and pasting them together as a collage to form his intended scene. With an eye toward emphasizing the layered texture of the collage, Muniz pioneered a special approach to lighting and scanning the original before printing it at monumental scale.

The results are striking in their virtuosity. When seen up close, details from the multitude of original black-and-white pictures can be seen positioned in playful juxtaposition with one another. At a distance, the relative density of each fragment works with those around it to generate a coherent picture across the larger composition.

Muniz follows a similar process in his Postcards series, gathering thousands of postcards from around the world and morphing them into scenes that replicate familiar tourist views. In both series, he explores the common human drive to celebrate and memorialize life's experiences.


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