Art History's out-of-body Experience

by Robert Cozzolino

 




 

Muniz studies and absorbs these traditional and recent uses of art as art. "Copying has been an extensive part of my work as an artist," he notes. "Not only because of the constant feeling of debt I owe to artists before me, but also because of my firm belief in the nonrevolutionary pattern of creativity." [10] Appearances can joyfully mislead ­ Muniz does not replicate other works of art. He draws, assembles, arranges, and plays with materials in such a way that they gradually reconstitute images that seem familiar to us. This is not another way of saying that Muniz makes copies. He generates an entirely new work of art by transmogrifying, [11] translating, [12] transposing, [13] converting, [14] metamorphosing, [15] and unleashing alchemy to transform the common into the extraordinary.

To reassemble a Rembrandt etching Muniz used sharp metal objects that could have etched the original image, including paperclips, nails, staples and pins (figure 6). This refocuses our innocent eye, shifting its attention to a subject (beggar, Rembrandt print) that is composed of, not with, the means of its manual and reproductive origins. Critically engaging with the familiar, Muniz taps into our communal knowledge to examine how images penetrate consciousness. Like his fascination with Santa Donata's effigy, his translations from art history are about the wondrous below the surface ­ the mysterious energy and mechanisms concealed within an image.

Muniz realizes an extraordinary morphology in Still Life with Apples, After Cézanne (2004; figure 7). The shimmering surface consists entirely of small, delicate discs that were punched out of magazines. These colored circles rhyme visually and structurally with Cézanne's short, faceted and parallel brushstrokes. Like clusters of cells, the dots animate Muniz's Cézanne with jubilant energy; it seethes like a living organism swelling in respiration. Art historians frequently describe Cézanne's content in psychosexual terms and find its mysterious absences telling. Muniz's translation emulates the feeling of freedom and anxiety that some find intertwined in Cézanne's method. Muniz worked briefly in advertising, which pads the mass-market magazines that were mutilated to make this image. This relationship suggests that the "Pictures of Magazines" series is a systematic, visual remaking of identity through an intervention into art history and Muniz's past.

Muniz's astute interpretations of art history have an ancestor in Salvador Dalí, who frequently folded earlier art into his cosmology. Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963; figure 8) merges Dalí's invented and lived identity with that of a brother who died just over nine months before Dalí's birth. His brother hovers in this mindscape, an invention based on false memories that regenerate as a hallucinatory matrix of cherries, blood and void. Below, to the left of the apparition, the figures from Jean-François Millet's Angelus (1857-59; Musée d'Orsay) struggle with a heavy sack near a wheelbarrow, which had lugubrious and salacious associations for Dalí. This complex painting integrates the artist's life with his written interpretation of the Angelus. Among his suspicions was that it depicted a scene of mourning and sexual anxiety at the grave of the couple's dead child. [16]

Muniz's variations also provoke new interpretations of canonical paintings. In his chocolate version of Théodore Géricault's dramatic Raft of the Medusa (1818-19; Musée du Louvre, Paris), the syrup's liquidity and uncanny swelling carries a disturbing pallor that fits the memorialized atrocity (figure 9). In July 1816, a French frigate broke apart off the coast of Africa. The captain abandoned 150 men from his crew on a makeshift raft which drifted on stormy seas for nearly two weeks. Fifteen survived, while others succumbed to insanity, starvation, exposure, murder, and cannibalism. Géricault composed his monumental painting from life studies, published account of two survivors and sketches made in morgues. Muniz's chocolate syrup version extends the existentiality of his model; it is inherently ephemeral, subject to rot or ingestion by insects if not cleaned up. It conveys a nauseating dizziness that suggests the vision of a surviving crewmember. Muniz has emphasized chocolate has impure connotations. It has been used as blood in black and white films and carries scatological, gluttonous, and sexual meanings. [17]

Muniz's work fetishizes his hyperawareness of the historical continuum. He inhabits art history by integrating his identity and methods with ghosts of the past. This impulse reaches a fever-pitch in his recent meta-self-reflexive Vik Muniz monograph in which he employs art history's language, rhetorical structure, and methods of analysis. [18] In Reflex, he establishes an artistic lineage, posits comparisons between his work and a range of visual culture, and draws upon theory in discussing his methods and place in contemporary art. This critical apparatus is interspersed with meaningful childhood anecdotes, work-related epiphanies, and life experiences that illuminate his oeuvre.

Can this man, who wishes to slip us the worst possible illusion, be trusted with his own life narrative? Is this monograph an illusory, textual Muniz copy after Muniz? What more can he do to occupy history with his projected body and artistic identity? A suggestion: Make a visual copy after one of his own images, repeat it systematically in successive methods representing all of his materials, until the palette is exhausted, only to reverse back through the materials to his source image. Would the image eventually disappear? Would Vik vanish? There would, at the very least, be a lot to clean up.

 

Notes:

1. Vik Muniz, "Surface Tension." Parkett 46 (1996), 56. The parish website includes a special page devoted to Santa Donata: www.paroquiasantacecilia.com.br

2 Muniz, "Surface Tension," 56.

3 "Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback: A Dialogue," in Charles Ashley Stainback, Vik Muniz: Seeing Is Believing (Santa Fe: Arena Editions, 1998), 16.

4 "Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback: A Dialogue," 36.

5 Peter Galassi and Vik Muniz [in conversation], "Natura Pictrix," in Vik Muniz (Paris: Centre national de la photographie, 1999), 106.

6 "Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback: A Dialogue," 36.

7 The examples are inexhaustible: Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Richard Misrach, and Thomas Struth have photographed works of art as their art. Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Morimura Yasumasa have cast themselves in the roles of figures in historical pictures. Kathleen Gilje, Elaine Reichek, Eve Sussman, Bill Viola, Jeff Wall, and William Wegman have reworked and recast famous paintings/pictures.

8 Ogawa duplicated Millet's composition over graph paper, overlaid aluminum foil, and then wrapped the shaped foil over individual slices of white bread. Each slice was toasted individually in a flat toaster and reassembled "like a mosaic" to match the graph drawing and original painting. E-mail correspondence with Edward Meyer, Vice President of Exhibits and Archives, Ripley Entertainment Inc., July 19, 2005.

9 For related discussions of this practice, see Robert Cozzolino, "'Myself during the War': John Wilde's World War II Sketchbook." Elvehjem Museum of Art Bulletin (1999-2001), 41-54; and David Lomas, "Simulacra and the Order of Mimesis in Salvador Dalí and Glenn Brown," in Persistence and Memory: New Critical Perspectives on Dalí at the Centennial. Edited by Hank Hine, et al. (Milan: Bompiani, 2004): 201-210.

10 Vik Muniz, Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005), 89.

11 He alters greatly with humorous or sometimes grotesque effects.

12 He turns the work of art into his own visual language.

13 He puts the image's style, manner of expression in his own; he changes its relative place and order.

14 He alters its physical or chemical properties.

15 His illusions seem to submit the originals to a supernatural change.

16 Salvador Dalí, The Tragic Myth of Millet's Angelus: A Paranoiac-critical Interpretation including the Myth of William Tell (the whole truth about my expulsion from the Surrealist group) (Saint Petersburg: Salvador Dali Museum, 1986).

17 Muniz, Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer, 76.

18 Muniz, Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer.

 

Copyright © 2005, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, used by permission.

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