Vik Muniz, Legal Tender @Sikkema Jenkins

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two-room back gallery space. All of the works are archival inkjet prints, made in 2024. As displayed, physical sizes are roughly 64×48, 67×48, 68×48, 70×48, 48×72, 67×82, and 83×67 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 6. All of the images are also available in a smaller size. (Installation shots below.)

In the front galleries, a second show of Muniz’s work, titled Scraps is on view, which is essentially a continuation of the body of work shown at the gallery in 2022 (reviewed here). This includes 14 works in multiple sizes, some as unique works, others in editions. (One representative work, from 2024, is reproduced below.)

Comments/Context: At this point in his multi-decade long artistic career, Vik Muniz has made pictures out of a dizzying variety of materials, almost more than we might want to count. To date, his running list is imaginatively inspired and unexpected: scraps of magazines, diamonds, chocolate syrup, caviar, wire, toys, puzzle pieces, hole-punched paper, dirt, pigment, and even garbage have provided him the raw material for re-imagined compositions that he has painstaking constructed and then photographed. Along the way, the Brazilian photographer has thoughtfully re-interpreted countless notable artworks and famous faces, often using the histories, textures, and symbolic implications of his materials to inform his end results.

In the past few years, Muniz has unearthed yet another unconventional material to play with – shredded banknotes. The initial project took form in 2022 as a partnership with the Central Bank of Brazil, who provided Muniz with the discarded currency. Muniz turned the hand-shredded scraps into a series called “Dinheiro Vivo” (or “Live Cash” in English), where he recreated a series of animal portraits and Brazilian landscapes.

Local animals like macaws, lion tamarins, panthers, turtles, and herons are pictured on Brazilian Reals, and so Muniz’s works created a nesting effect of re-imagining those same likenesses as executed in colorful scraps of tinted currency that originally featured those species. He also made a selection of banknote recreations of artworks made by 19th century artists who worked in Brazil and represented tropical scenes in their compositions. In both sets of pictures, Muniz wrestled with how the exploitation of natural resources and lands in Brazil has been converted into money, with trees literally turned into paper notes, which he then used to recreate visions of that very same natural world.

More recently, Muniz has extended the shredded currency motif to the United States, using notes obtained from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as the raw material for another round of works. American paper currency has long featured the faces of presidents and politicians on the front and famous symbols, monuments, and buildings on the back, a tradition that cements a particular version of American history and its heroes. In this show, Muniz has used the green-tinted US banknote scraps to create images of an alternate historical lineup, where the stately eagle and buffalo still preside, but different (and more inclusive) faces and locations are memorialized and celebrated.

The US monetary pantheon is currently filled by a parade of white men, and with his currency portrait of Harriet Tubman, Muniz wades into a struggle to change that reality that has been brewing for more than a decade. Tubman was selected to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 dollar bill back in 2016 (or to be placed on the front with Jackson moved to the back), but that redesign was delayed by the Trump administration, and then re-accelerated by the Biden administration, leaving the date for a potential change now slated at perhaps 2030. Muniz’s portrait tracks other famous likenesses of the slave-liberator and abolitionist, but with the added resonance (or perhaps irony) of constructing her portrait from the scraps of bills with faces quite unlike hers.

In the other portraits included in the series, Muniz offers an additional selection of historical faces that merit consideration for recognition on American currency – Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, and Oglala Lakota Chief Wašíčuŋ Tȟašúŋke (American Horse) – each worthy of inclusion, honor, and widespread national remembrance. Up close, each of the faces is built from literal scraps of Americana, from words, creeds, and slogans (including the repeated use of the words United States of America) to fragments of hashed textures, dates, and architectural details found on the bills. One additional work recreates an image of the aftermath of the 1921 race massacre that destroyed the Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, adding the reversal of a tragic/dishonorable scene to the concept of what a historical image on currency might represent.

When Muniz returns to the animal forms of the stately bald eagle and massive bison, he taps into a deep vein of resonant American patriotism and myth-making. Both animals were once endangered but have been actively protected, so their fragility as symbols in an age of environmental change is well understood and appreciated. His large scale portraits of the animals are filled with implied power and majesty, with the tactile details of each species amplified by the layered banknote scraps, but the “made from money” undercurrent also adds a splash of friction to each idealized portrayal.

In this small handful of works, Muniz has touched on plenty of hot button topics in contemporary American life – the resonances (and failings) of our complex history, our relationship with previously marginalized leaders and influential figures (including women, African Americans, and Indigenous peoples), the pervasive influence of money, the vulnerability of the natural world, the politics of race, gender, and ethnicity, and the ways all of these themes intertwine and intermingle in our choice of national symbols. As such, these Muniz works offer many pathways in and a range of potential conversation starters, which along with their general aesthetic familiarity, should make them just provocative enough to encourage some thoughtful engagement.

Collector’s POV: The prints from the Legal Tender series are priced between $39000 and $45000, based on size, in the largest size; a smaller size for the various prints is priced either at $30000 or $32000. The largest size of the Tokyo Scraps image is priced at $55000, with smaller sizes available at $45000 and $32000. Muniz’s 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 ranged between $5000 and $295000, with most prints finding buyers in five figures.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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