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.
4.James Elkins, Failure in 20th Century Painting, (unpublished manuscript), 2001.
JACINDA RUSSELL IS AN ARTIST LIVING AND WORKING IN PORTLAND, OREGON.