Pictures of Maquettes

by Jacinda Russell

Vik Muniz's Model Pictures
Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
February 21-June 9, 2002Vik Muniz challenges his audience's perceptions with his photographs of drawings, sculptures and found objects. His aim is to "make the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eyes of the average person."' His previous work incorporated materials as diverse as chocolate, thread, sugar, dirt, cayenne pepper and the contents of ashtrays. Drawn to process and working with his hands (Muniz was a sculptor before dis­covering he was more attracted to the photographs of his work rather that the sculpture itself), he painstakingly removed or built up material to create trompe I'oeil representations referencing art history, mass media and memory. The Last Supper, drawn carefully with Bosco syrup, was quickly photographed before the photo lamps melted the chocolate into an unrecognizable blob. In Pictures of Dirt, Muniz used miniature vacuums to remove layers of soil on top of a light box, which slowly revealed a self-portrait as the light beneath appeared. Traces of decomposed leaves and pebbles form the background.

The Menil Collection commissioned Muniz to create a piece specifically for FotoFest 2002 based on artwork in the collection. Muniz discovered the Menil model on a site visit and was immediate­ly drawn to the exact rendering of every sculpture, painting and icon in the museum's collection. Unlike many institutions who use the color copier to reproduce artwork, the pieces in the Menil model were hand crafted by Mark Flood, Doug Laguarta and David War­ren. Each room is represented in minia­ture proportion; it is a fascinating object borne of meticulous execution, used to visualize exhibitions before installation. It is no wonder that Muniz was drawn to its scale and detailed craft.

After photographing a number ofthe maquettes, Muniz decided to narrow the field and use only Surrealist art works. Because the Menil is famous for its Surrealism collection, this was a logical decision. In an interview with Matthew Drutt, Muniz also revealed that he selected well-known Surrealist images because it is easier to deceive the viewers who enter the exhibition with precon­ceived ideas about the original work of art.2 The majority of the objects in Model Pictures are reproductions of the work of Rene Magritte and Man Ray, with token representations from Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Gustave Dore, Alberto Giacometti, Odilon Redon and Giorgio de Chirico. The resulting exhibi­tion includes 20 maquettes photographi­cally enlarged to the scale of the original paintings. A section of the original mod­el resides in the center of the installation.

The rephotographed reproductions are hardly accurate renditions of the original artwork. Detail is lost in the process thus creating a quality similar to a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. The inherent imperfections are magnified, emphasizing the dings, smudges and unblended shifts in color. Magritte's Le chant des sirenes looks as if it was rendered in crayon ae a rubbing over pavement to create the texture of the background sky. There is a subtle clash in surfaces ae the smooth, nonreflective photographic paper contrasts with the textured quality, which is heightened in the reproductive process. The photo­graphs also incorporate the original and sometimes overly elaborate frames, creating a false illusion of depth on a two-dimen­sional plane.

Muniz's inclu­sion of the gallery model leaves no conceptual stone unturned. The original maque­ttes are arranged inside, replicating the precise posi­tion of the repro­ductions on the walls. As Muniz states, "The mod­el gives every­thing and nothing to the viewer...."3 We are able to view a portion of the
model, which is usually unavailable to the general public, along with the origi­nal maquettes. Continuing Muniz's con­sistent use of illusion, a hand crafted, mini-model is placed inside, creating an infinite circle of reproductions within reproductions, models within models. Absurdity and humor are essential com­ponents in Muniz's work, as witnessed by his earlier painted silhouettes of bovines on white cows and two por­traits of the Mona Lisa, one in peanut butter and the other in jelly. These two elements, along with the artist's laborious process, are absent in the far more serious Model Pictures. He relies on found objects, merely docu­menting someone else's reproduction of art rather than creating the work himself. He depends on a fascinating, existing object to carry the installation, but ultimately, it is not taken far enough. It is tempting to attribute this lack of ingenuity to the sheer limitations of creating a series solely inspired from the collection of an institution. Muniz, however, is not a stranger to museum commissions. He recently executed two projects that indicate that patronage is not an impediment for the artist. The Frick Art and Historical Center in Pitts­burgh commissioned Muniz to create a body of work in response to the restoration of the 19TH century estate of Henry Clay Frick. The resulting series, Clayton Days, reconstructs the time period with elaborately staged still life and genre scenes combined with original photographs from the era. Muniz used 19TH century equipment, costumes and props - shallow depth of field and low perspective expose Muniz's photographs as those taken in the 2isx century. Clay­ton Days is a successful combination of the reproduction and original, an illu­sion taken one step further through the simple act of staging a situation, rather than documenting an existing one.
For The Things Themselves: Pictures of Dust, Muniz collected feathers, hair, cobwebs, paint chips, pencil shavings, soot, sand and gravel from the floors of the Whitney Museum and created draw­ings based on their collection of Mini­malist and Post-Minimalist art. The large photographs of Carl Andre, Richard Ser-ra and Barry Le Va pieces implement the same process used to create Pictures of Chocolate or Pictures of Dirt. The mono­lithic sculptures, however, were trans­formed, no longer constructed of impenetrable material but lightweight detritus that were destroyed after they were photographed.

Vik Muniz is at his best when he is in absolute control of his subject matter, with his fingernails encrusted in dirt, his hands covered in chocolate and his stu­dio buried in thousands of yards of thread. In Failure in 20TH Century Paint­ing, James Elkins describes five strategies for taking trompe I'oeA into the 21st cen­tury. The fifth approach is particularly relevant forModel Pictures "... try to make the genre into a Postmodern play on illusion rather than an example of illusion."4 All of Muniz's previous works "played on" the element of illusion, caus­ing the viewer to think twice about the concept and the process. Unfortunately, Model Pictures falls short; the model itself and the original reproductions are ultimately more engaging than the end product.

1. Vik Muniz, Seeing is Believing, Arena Editions, 1998. Dialogue with Charles Ashley Stainback.
2.Vik Muniz, Model Pictures, The Menil Collection, 2002.
3. Ibid.
4.James Elkins, Failure in 20th Century Painting, (unpublished manuscript), 2001.