VIK MUNIZ CAN draw really, really well. Leonardo's "Last Supper?" No problem. Van Gogh's bed, Medusa's head, and even little John John saluting -- Muniz can dash off copies of all these with uncanny likeness to the originals.
What's curious, though, is what Muniz uses to make his drawings. Yes, he's done John John in conventional pencil and charcoal, but his "Last Supper" is a masterpiece in Bosco chocolate syrup. Medusa's face emerges from marinara sauce and spaghetti noodles. The famous bed from Arles is deftly rendered in fine wire.
Even curiouser is that this master of all materials is known primarily as a photographer. Close to 100 large-format photos by Muniz are on view at a big summer show at the Center for Creative Photography, Vik Muniz: Seeing Is Believing. The pictures document for all time his short-lived drawings, ephemeral series in chocolate and tomato sauce, in sugar, thread and cotton balls, in dirt and clay. With their faithful rendering of some of our most prized images -- in the most disdained art materials -- the photographs undermine our notions of what is real and what is fake.
"Vik makes illusions that are double-takes," says exhibition curator Charles Ashley Stainback, director of the Skidmore College art museum and former director of the International Center of Photography in New York. "He uses our believability in the power of photographs...He subverts the pictures and makes us think about photography."
Muniz is on a serious mission to "blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, between high art and kitsch," as Stainback has written in the exhibition catalog; but he's also a wit, a comedian in chemicals and emulsive papers, whose art is partly a colossal joke on American culture. The cotton-ball series, for instance, is a send-up of Alfred Stieglitz's serious Equivalents photos of clouds that look like other things. Muniz has glued cotton onto gray papers, like a little kid making cloud pictures, photographed them, and presented them with oh-so-serious art-historical titles, such as "Durer's Praying Hands," or deadpan: "Pig" and "Snail."
The Pictures with Chocolate, my personal favorites, are merry evocations of landmark works in art history. "The Last Supper" is a finely detailed triptych, the anguished face of Christ and the gestures of the apostles lovingly detailed in Bosco. The famous Life magazine pictures of Jackson Pollock reproduce very well in chocolate sauce: what could be better than the sticky syrup for calling up Pollock's famous paint drips on canvas? Muniz's version asks the implicit question: is oil paint always superior to chocolate? Is a Renaissance fresco necessarily better than a big photograph of Bosco? And are they more real?
Muniz is not always the joyous prankster bent on puncturing solemn assumptions, however. His series Aftermath deals with the street children in his native Brazil who reportedly have been murdered by the authorities to make the streets more quaint for tourists. He memorializes these kids in drawings made of carnival debris, their ghostly black and white figures emerging from the colorful trash of confetti papers and ziptop lids. Similarly, the artist traveled to Haiti and took snapshots of kids working in the sugar cane fields for the series Sugar Children. When he came back, he used the pictures as a guide for his portraits in sugar on black paper.
The photographs of all these drawings, Stainback says, are vastly enlarged over the originals. Typically, Muniz will make a quick 8-by-10 inch sketch in, say, syrup, using tweezers and toothbrushes to push the sticky chocolate across the page, or to pile up sugar. Then he'll photograph his creation with a copy camera (his cat has been known to destroy thread works prematurely, Stainback says) and send that off to the lab for processing into the large-format images that end up on the walls.
Muniz is so prolific, and so imaginative, that he sometimes breaks out of his weird-drawings and photographs routine, as though even his catholic list of drawing materials is too confining. The series Personal Articles consists entirely of fake news stories that Muniz wrote and illustrated, had printed up on newsprint by a co-conspirator with a printing press, and distributed for public consumption. One piece, which he headlined "Small Format Photography Banned at Yosemite," details the heady fines and jail time that now await the hapless amateur photographer who takes snapshots at the exhaustively photographed national park. It's a pure lie, of course, yet Stainback says the news made it onto at least one radio show and was accepted by listeners as truth. The work's a poke at the ubiquity of photography, America's most popular amateur art form, and a sly commentary on the authority lent to the media.
The Best of Life series is a group of Muniz drawings of some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, works of photojournalism that've become part of the American mental landscape. When Muniz emigrated from Brazil to the U.S. in the 1980s, he bought a copy of the book Best of Life. It was like a portable repository of American culture, and Muniz virtually memorized its pictures. He carried the book around with him everywhere, Stainback says, until the fateful day he lost it at Coney Island, that quintessential American place. Instead of buying a new copy, Muniz decided to reproduce its images from memory, an exercise that tested just how deeply these pictures had already etched themselves onto the consciousness of a new immigrant.
What happened was astonishing. Out poured the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, John Lennon in New York, the sailor kissing the nurse at Times Square, the young woman screaming over the body of the slain student at Kent State, the little Vietnamese girl running screaming and naked down a bomb-strewn road, JFK Jr. saluting his father's coffin. Drawn in pencil and charcoal to look like black-and-white newspaper photos, the pictures are somewhat distorted, a face wavy and grainy, mimicking the effects of memory.
Since this exhibition went up, young Kennedy died, and the photograph of his salute was suddenly, inescapably, everywhere in America. The fact that editors didn't even have to think about printing it -- running it on the front page was a no-brainer -- proves one of Muniz's points. The photo of the little boy in the short coat was an immediately recognizable bit of shorthand for a lost time and place; a summation of a bygone mentality in black and white. Kennedy Jr. was quoted in news stories as saying he himself hadn't known where his memories stopped and the photographs began. Sometimes, much of the time, photographs are us.
Vik Muniz: Seeing Is Believing continues through Sunday, September 26, at the Center for Creative Photography on the UA campus. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. For more information call 621-7968. At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, August 5, Mark Alice Durant, a Syracuse University professor who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog, will give a free gallery talk on Vik Muniz and the Alphabet of Likeness. At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 14, there will be a free reading and sign language performance of Monologue of a Muted Man, a play related to Muniz's work, written by Tucson playwright and UA faculty member Patrick Baliani. The artist himself will give a free gallery talk at 6 p.m. Friday, September 24. The talk will be part of a closing reception from 5 to 7 p.m.