Most great artists have found ways of working with and expanding upon the traditions of art-making that have gone before them. It is rare indeed to encounter an artist who has made his entire oeuvre of finding non-traditional materials and methods with which to make pictures. Vik Muniz, one of the world’s most important, celebrated and prolific contemporary artists, takes as his primary interest that space between the subjects of his photographs and the materials used to construct them. His subjects are often classic paintings and photographs that are already well-known to an audience. But his translations of those images employ a broad assortment of non-traditional materials: chocolate, dust, sugar, tomato sauce, dirt, wire, trash and anonymous family snapshots, and more recently individual grains of sand and bacterial microorganisms. The final product for Mr. Muniz is always a photograph of that translation.
The use of these materials to recreate famous pictures is a playful enterprise and relates to grand traditions of studio image-making that long precedes photography. And within the history of photography there have been endless examples of artists who fabricated scenes to be photographed. The words recreation/re-creation are apt descriptors of his playful work toward profound ends.
By reproducing easily identified pictures Mr. Muniz ensures that the audience is quickly able to recognize and place the images within a familiar cultural context: the important Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollack in his studio working on one of his large canvases, or the iconic 1793 painting of The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. The materials he employs have their own cultural associations. Diamonds, toy soldiers, junk from the world’s largest garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro, dust gathered from a museum by the cleaning staff, or caviar. The pairings of materials to image create a gap, a disjunction between medium and subject that is his primary interest: the famous photo by Max Halberstadt of Sigmund Freud reproduced in chocolate syrup, a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor in diamonds, or portraits of people who live and work on the dump in Rio are made from items that they gathered at that dump. Mr. Muniz displays marvelous tour de force skill creating these “translations.”
The exhibition will include more recent work in which he fashions large images from pop-culture as well as his own childhood family album made up of thousands of re-photographed, found, anonymous family images. He has been building the world’s smallest sand castles, working with a scanning electron microscope to etch micro-drawings of castles on individual grains of sand. Also included will be images employing microorganisms (bacteria and even cancer cells) to proliferate in choreographed patterns and designs. The wide-ranging invention of Mr. Muniz’s will be amply identified in this retrospective exhibition.