Vik Muniz, Scraps @Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 works, framed in thick black wood and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the two smaller back galleries. 17 of the works are archival inkjet prints made in 2020 or 2021. Physical sizes of these works range from roughly 37×32 to 58×159 (diptych) inches, and all of these works are unique. The show also includes one archival inkjet print from 2020 that comes in an edition of 6; it is sized 90×59 inches. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the better part of his multi-decade career in photography, Vik Muniz has been trying to understand the complex nature of visual memory. At the core of his thinking have always been the thorny questions of what happens to an image stored in our memories and how we then see and understand that same image when it is presented to us in another form. Whether the image is a reproduction of a famous artwork, a photograph drawn from the news headlines, a piece of celebrity culture, or something far more personal, like a snapshot from a private family album, has hardly mattered – each one gets stored in our brains and accessed when we see it again, so Muniz can use it as raw material for his de- and re-constructions. Employing a dizzying array of process innovations few contemporary photographers can even claim to match, Muniz has again and again thought of new ways to build up these familiar images, only to deliberately upend those chains of visual association with his various artistic interventions.

Muniz’ consistent inventiveness has made it extremely difficult to identify straight line chains of logic that link one project to the next; instead, ideas seem to percolate around, settle, and then recombine to generate new iterations and to open new artistic doors. And while the works in this show seem directly descended from those in his 2019 show, where scraps of painted surfaces were built up, rephotographed, and then reassembled into layered reproductions of colorful painterly abstractions by the likes of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Hans Hoffman, Carmen Herrera, and others, such a conclusion seems too simple. Muniz has explored painted textures, aggregated scraps, image/object physicality, and stratified layering of imagery in other forms across the years – his newest works assimilate all those varied learnings, and then turn back once again to memory as the stubborn subject that just won’t go away.

All of the works on view here have been constructed using essentially the same methods. Starting with painted paper scraps (or images of painted scraps), Muniz has reconstructed various photographs (and memories of photographs), intermingling physical construction steps with iterative rephotography of that process, confusing our ability to untangle “real” scraps from images of those same scraps. The works are generally made from three layers of the same end result photograph, which have then been cut through to create possibilities of depth and height that interact with the flatness and trompe l’oeil effects in the photographs. This adds spatial push and pull to the compositions, the surface textures excavated to reveal nested layers of repetition below. As we travel across the surfaces, our eyes bounce up and down across the sharp edged undulations, each image becoming sculptural, like a cut away topographical map. When these aesthetics are then applied to the metaphor of memory, Muniz creates the feeling of tunneling into repetitions of images, like peeling back the layers of an onion.

In exploring this new mode of depiction, Muniz first applied these ideas to the subject matter of 20th century abstract paintings, which were inherently already filled with overlapped layers of hard edged geometries. And while this approach did upend the typical flatness of the picture plane and reimagine the painted textures, the works didn’t expand the visual interaction enough, so the alternate interpretations felt underplayed and a little aloof.

But as an artist, Muniz is always adapting and experimenting, and the works on view in this show turn this new process approach toward different kinds of subject matter with more potential resonance and memory-induced ambiguity. Many pull back to the simplicity of monochrome, which better mimics the feeling of remembering. Several of the black-and-white works revel in high contrast texture, taking Muniz back to the sparkling surface of the ocean, the dense all-over patterns of Raqqua and Jakarta, and the piled rag pickers of the Gramacho landfill, where he was inspired to make his now famous Pictures of Garbage. When passed from photographic crispness through the approximations of painted scraps, these scenes become shifting and indistinct, and Muniz has matched his cut patterns (squares and rectangular forms, slashed slices, etc.) to the prevailing structures of the underlying images. This gives these images a feeling of undulating movement, as though the surfaces refuse to neatly resolve, but remain open and rumbling.

Other works in black-and-white push further into the recesses of memory, where the images are softened and blurred by time, and then additionally stylized by their recreation. The bombed front of the Oklahoma City federal building crumbles into jarred pieces, dense crowds of recent protestors and marchers break down into silhouettes and gestures like ink drawings, and even a bathroom sink in a New Jersey gas station where Muniz used to work seems to dissolve into planes of imprecision. As the images pass through his memory, it’s almost as if Muniz is dividing and reassembling them, the invisible process of gathering and reconstructing adding a sense of vagueness and melancholy to images both recent and farther in the past.

When Muniz jumps back into images in color, his layering process works both for and against him, alternately leading to elegant complexity and awkward resemblance, the color amplifying the outcomes. His pink floral still life rounds the blossoms into three dimensional discs, while the wooden slats of the table below break up into loose fitting rectangles. And his image of a robin sitting on a blossoming tree branch (after a photograph by Paul Outerbridge) not only plays with the depth of the sky and the shapes of the petals, but assembles its unusually rich blue backdrop from fluctuating composite fragments. These same techniques feel less assured and inspired when Muniz takes on a wall of sneakers (after Jamel Shabazz) and a diner meal (after Stephen Shore), his strips of wooden table and Adidas stripes feeling more blocky and literal; perhaps it is simply the broader familiarity of the subject matter in these two pictures that puts more pressure on Muniz to twist it into something new.

After several years of exploring the intertwined duality of images and objects and the coolness of abstraction, these works find Muniz encouraging the pendulum of personal interaction to swing back toward the filter of his own memories. This leads to a collection of imagery that might at first glance feel random or disconnected, but likely reflects a disparate set of visual ideas swirling around inside the artist’s head, all linked together by the urge to re-imagine them with more spatial fluidity. Part of what has made Muniz’ work durably unique is his willingness to bring sculptural physicality into photography, a pairing that doesn’t on the surface seem either easy or compatible. The strongest of the works on view here leverage unexpected insights of physical depth and texture to make photographic moments that feel richer, rounder, and more three dimensional than usual. When sifted through an additional layer of intense nostalgia or personal importance, that process of translation and transformation can lead to even more subtle and inspired results.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $42000 and $100000, based on size. 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 ranged between $5000 and $295000, with most prints finding buyers in five figures.

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