Vik Muniz, Epistemes @Sikkema Jenkins

JTF (just the facts): A total of 54 mixed media works, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the two smaller back rooms. 50 of the works are mixed media works (including 1 diptych) comprised of photographs and other additional materials (twine, cardboard, yarn, metal discs, ripped paper, newspaper, wool, etc ), made in 2016. Physical sizes range between roughly 31×23 and 74×152 (or reverse), with several intermediate sizes. The show also includes 3 earlier works made in 1988 or 1989 and reworked recently; these consist of archival inkjet prints, gelatin silver prints, rope, foam cord, and a nail. There is also a series of seven 3D printed balls (that look like crumpled paper), made in 2016 (in an edition of 5). Aside from this one work, all the rest of the works on view are unique. (Installation and close-up shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Vik Muniz got his start as an artist back in the late 1980s, his primary medium was sculpture. In many cases, his first works were exercises in combining incongruous materials, exploring the reconsideration of one everyday form in another unlikely incarnation. He made concrete cinder blocks out of marble, plastic bear honey dispensers out of bronze, and roller skates out of Dutch wooden shoes, each one a deliberate conceptual inversion.

At about the same time, he began to introduce photography into these playful exchanges, placing photographs of trophies on a wooden shelf, hanging photographs of t-shirts on a rope clothesline, or perching photographs of starlings along a physical wire. And while many artists had explored the duality of image/object in photography going back to the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Muniz’ efforts were an extension of his own line of thinking that had begun in three dimensions. He threw real darts at an image of a dart board, placed cracked glass over an image of the same subject, and most notably, made a series of sculptural wall works that connected the tangled twists of a black cord with framed images of that same cord, creating graceful, swooping, circuit-like forms that seamlessly oscillated between two states – images of the thing and the thing itself.

In the roughly thirty years since Muniz made these early works, he has intermittently returned to sculptural physicality, but largely he has spent his time constructing setups to be photographed, recreating famous images of all kinds in everything from thread and wire to diamonds and chocolate syrup. He’s made photographs out of trash, and pigment, and dirt, and puzzle pieces, and even most recently scraps of other photographs, in each case thoughtfully using his materials to inform the end results.

During the intervening years when the prolific Muniz was churning out series after series of his now instantly recognizable illusionistic recreations, other photographers were rediscovering the image/object conundrum inherent to photography, particularly as it relates to our new digital world. Charlotte Cotton’s book Photography is Magic is a veritable taxonomy of this kind of contemporary work, and there are now literally dozens of talented photographers probing the conceptual nature of this duality. Interestingly, Muniz was not included in this exhaustive catalog of current practitioners, perhaps because of the very ubiquity of his creations.

All of this provides a backdrop to Muniz’ new show, which given this historical and current context, has a kind of back-to-the-future feel to it. Effectively picking up where he left off in the late 1980s, and taking a few cues from what the cool kids are doing these days, Muniz has inverted his thinking – where he once used photographs to disassemble the nature of sculpture, he is now using real world physicality to disassemble photographic perception.

Each new work on view illustrates the same general principle – when placed together or in close proximity, the combination of an image of an object and a physical example of that object itself will create  a set of perplexing optical conundrums. This conceptual theorem is then unequivocally proven by Muniz again and again, using a wide range of materials and image making strategies. With some thirty years of elaborate constructions under his belt, Muniz has mastered the meticulous precision that makes such setups visually effective, and his new works achieve a perfection of execution that is impressively streamlined – he knows what is needed and what is not to make his point, and his compositions feel deliberately illustrative of his larger argument.

Circling the galleries, we see Muniz diligently work through each material, optimizing its particular presentation to match the properties of the specific objects. He moves from plastic buttons, to lace doilies, to colored twine, to edge-torn paper, to metal discs, to corrugated cardboard, to wool balls, to watercolor paper swatches, to foam circles, to rope, and onward through another dozen examples. He punches holes, creates woven patterns, cuts through layers, pulls yarn in straight lines, glues on various knick knacks, organizes squares into grids, and basically uses every method he can think of for cleverly juxtaposing the image and the thing itself. Each work is handmade and unique, so as the examples pile up, we get the feeling that Muniz has been riffing for months on these ideas, each one kicking off yet another imaginative iteration on the same theme.

And while the execution here is flawless, the conceptual ideas he’s exploring don’t seem entirely new and original anymore. This is particularly true in the first back room, where Muniz trots out a crumpled paper and picture of crumpled paper diptych that feels like a work many other photographers have already made. Nearby, a cut triangle work with a dense array of folds and images of folds is a dead ringer for the intricate constructions of Christiane Feser, so much so that we have to assume Muniz was unaware of her work.

The good news is that while the works in the main room are sure to be crowd pleasing in their crafty visual gamesmanship, a grid of works in the far back room finds Muniz digging deeper and pushing those ideas along riskier tangents. The Interaction of Color series takes this same fundamental image/object photographic presence and layers the ideas of transparency and color blending on top. Employing various Albers-like tonal scales and fields of color in rectangles and circles, Muniz has created abstractions that not only twist our perception, but then also add on a sense of evolution, where colors and images of colors interact with tints and clear sheets, creating another dash of recursive complexity.

In the end, what Muniz contributes to the larger image/object conversation (which began long ago and will continue into the future) is his consistent dexterity. Even though others have walked down this exact same road, his superlative visual proofs are as persuasive as anyone elses, and probably better executed. What Muniz has succeeded in doing is make a brainy “photography about photography” topic into something more universally approachable – even those who have no time for an obtuse conceptual discussion of this inherent photographic duality can stand back and enjoy the ingenuity of his constructions. This affable accessibility has and continues to be a hallmark of Muniz’ art. An exhibit like this one could have easily had an inherent arms-length arrogance that sought to show us just how incredibly smart the artist is. But that isn’t Muniz’ angle – even the most complex and sophisticated of these constructions feels wholly good natured, like the teachings of a friendly science teacher who has an unquenchable passion for filling us with smiling wonder.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced based on size, with the smallest works priced between $15000 and $17000, the mid sized works between $35000 and $40000, and the largest at $95000. Muniz’ works are ubiquitous in the secondary markets for both photography and contemporary art, with dozens of images available at auction every season. Recent prices have continued to rise, ranging between $5000 and $295000, with most prints finding buyers in five figures.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Void Publishing (here). Open spine softcover (16,8 x 24 cm), 168 pages, with 106 color photographs. In an edition of 350 copies. ... Read on.

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