Sweet and Dreamy

Vik Muniz makes unexpected art.

Is it possible to create intelligent work with Bosco chocolate syrup? Obviously it is, since Vik Muniz has done it over and over again, in addition to other credibly contemporary creations using string, dirt, magazine ads, backhoes and skywriting airplanes. Muniz's actual medium is photography, which he uses to record the ephemeral images he makes or orchestrates, but he doesn't consider himself a photographer, and I know what he means.

The artist's undeniable cleverness and profound intelligence are shown off to great effect in what has to be one of the most compelling exhibits in town during this year's strong fall season: Muniz Remastered: Photographs From the West Collection, a large and handsome display that fills several galleries at the Museo de las Américas.

The idea for the show began when Museo director Patty Ortiz asked artist and zingmagazine publisher Devon Dikeou to do a project there. Muniz was the most obvious choice for a subject, since Dikeou owns the artist's most famous work, "The Last Supper."

In fact, the piece was the first one Dikeou and her brother Panny bought when they established the Dikeou Collection of contemporary art in 1998. The collection, located on the fifth floor of the historic Colorado Building at 1615 California Street, is open to the public (call 303-893-1414 for information). For "The Lask Supper," Muniz took Andy Warhol's appropriation of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" and turned it into a three-panel half-tone copy using that Bosco syrup. He then photographed the results and enlarged the images to a size appropriate for such a lofty topic.

"The Last Supper" isn't included in Muniz Remastered, however. Instead, Dikeou selected photos from the West Collection in Pennsylvania and asked Lee Stoetzel, a curator there, to help put the Museo exhibit together. The West Collection, founded by Paige West, specializes in art of the '90s and '00s and contains many Muniz photos that represent some of his most significant series. Paige West is also the producer of the documentary The Worst Possible Illusion: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz, which will be screened at the Museo on December 8 at 7 p.m.

Muniz himself is something of an enigmatic and illusive figure. Born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1961 to a working-class family, his mother was a switchboard operator and his father was a bartender. Though Muniz took a few classes in art school, he was, for the most part, self-taught. He worked in advertising in Brazil before moving to Chicago in 1983. At the time, he spoke little English and worked as a gas station attendant, among other low-end gigs, while continuing to develop his art. After a trip to Europe, he moved to New York, where he still lives.

By the late 1980s, he had turned to photographing his work in other mediums as his chief artistic expression. In 1992, he had his first important exhibit, Individuals, at the Stux Gallery, in which he created sculptures using a hunk of plastic clay, photographed them, then destroyed the first sculpture to create the second, and so on. The show featured the photos paired with bare pedestals in honor of the lost sculptures.

Remastered picks up the Muniz story a few years after that, with the oldest pieces dating from the late 1990s and the newest ones from a couple of years ago. The show has not been arranged chronologically; the first pieces visitors encounter date from 2002, and are displayed across from a group from 1999. This is a lost opportunity, since it would have been easy to have laid out Muniz's development from thread to cotton to chocolate to wire to magazine images. But I'm going to let the Museo off the hook for several reasons. First, the show is gorgeous. Second, the different series of works remain coherent because they were hung together as groups. Finally, the roughly ten-year span covered by Remastered is a relatively short time, so all of the pieces could arguably be seen as being from the same era.

For me, however, it works best to go chronologically, and among the earliest are eight large works from Muniz's "Room With the Clouds" group, from 1997, in which he made clouds from wads of cotton that he shaped to resemble commonplace things. The series addresses the nature of perception: Everyone has seen clouds that look like something else, though not as convincingly as these do. Among the images carried out in large black and white prints are a cat, a bunny, a swan and a snail. Despite the implicit humor of the cotton creatures, these "cloud" photos are absolutely stunning.

The next group includes a number of chocolate-syrup photos, notably "Action Photo, Namuth of Pollock," from 1997, a staggeringly complex rendition of Hans Namuth's famous photo of Jackson Pollock painting. Equally as elaborate is "The Raft of Medusa," based on the Théodore Géricault original from the early nineteenth century. In that painting — as well as in Muniz's chocolate depiction of it — there are scores of writhing figures who have been lost in a shipwreck. The 1999 piece is monumental, and up close, it's impossible to read its details, which are only perceivable from across the room.

Another aspect of his confectionary approach to photography are the 1999 images based on Aaron Siskind's 1950s photos of divers in mid-air. It's amazing how much naturalism Muniz is able to squeeze out of the Bosco! These photos of drawings are incredibly lyrical, and though they essentially follow the Siskind originals, they have a very different quality because Muniz has reduced them to half-tones — as he has with all the chocolate photos — instead of the fully fleshed-out grays of the originals.

Also riffing on the history of photography is the "Equivalents: The Museum of Modern Art" series, from 1999. In these small photos, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz's natural abstractions, Muniz photographed the random patterns of the marble floors at MoMA.

Muniz has been relentless in exploring the use of new materials to provide the basis for his photos. The 2002 "drawings" built from wire that he used for his versions of Rembrandt's "Beggar" portraits definitely underscore his tremendous hand-to-eye coordination, and they're really convincing as pencil sketches, even if they are actually photos of bas-relief sculptures.

Since the installation isn't chronological, it might not be obvious that Muniz has recently turned to color after working in black and white or monochrome for a long time.

This change is seen in his monumental and majestic works from 2004 and 2005. These pieces represent not only an aesthetic shift, but a major advancement in his conceptual path. In the early pieces, homogenous materials — cotton, chocolate syrup or wire, in the pieces here — that could be seen as being neutral from an intellectual standpoint were employed. But in the color pieces, Muniz often uses pre-existing images for his materials, thus effortlessly adding another level of meaning. A perfect example is "Kyber Pass, Self portrait as an Oriental, After Rembrandt," from 2005, in which the details are filled in with photos of colorful junk — umbrellas, toys, computer screens, wheels — that have been miniaturized and assembled as a montage. So, whereas before he was doing photos of appropriated images employing ad hoc art materials, in these more recent pieces he is using appropriated materials in addition to appropriated images.

Also in 2005, Muniz did some gigantic photos based on Monet's shadow-and-light studies of the Rouen Cathedral. These photographs are from Muniz's "Pigment" series, a name that suggests that the originals are none other than paintings. It's another thoughtful leap for Muniz within the same conceptual strategy he's been following.

Remastered doesn't include Muniz's outrageous and ambitious projects of the last few years, such as the photos of clouds that were produced by skywriting airplanes that Muniz directed, or the aerial shots of huge line drawings made by backhoes in the Arizona desert. The two are essentially opposite sides of the same coin, and they go back directly to his cotton clouds and his pictures of marble floors, respectively.

Postmodernism has mostly petered out — or devolved into neo-traditionalism — but Muniz has obviously found endless possibilities in being hermeneutical and phenomenological. I can't tell you how impressed I was with this show, but I can tell you that it's a must-see.

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