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Vik Muniz's works are unusual takes on familiar images. Think Mona Lisa painted in peanut butter and jelly.

Published July 30, 2006


We get a lot of good contemporary art exhibitions in the Tampa Bay area, occasionally even very good. Rarely do we get extraordinary. One example is at the Salvador Dali Museum - a handful of contemporary Spanish artists - that closes today in St. Petersburg.

Another is the recently opened "Vik Muniz: Reflex" at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum. Not only is its quality exceptional, so is its depth, a virtual midcareer retrospective of an important international artist whose work has not been seen in such quantity and concentration (with more than 100 photographic prints) since the late 1990s.

You can spend pages of esoteric artspeak discussing Muniz, who was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1961. It's the immediate visual connection he makes with a viewer, expert or amateur, that makes him accessible on many levels.

What child wouldn't enjoy seeing Leonardo's Mona Lisa painted in peanut butter and jelly?

What adult wouldn't marvel at Gericault's Raft of the Medusa rendered in chocolate sauce?

Clever but gimmicky, you might say in seeing each one by itself. Displayed in context, with examples from every series he has created since the late 1980s, you understand that his appropriation of familiar images is only a starting point for an interesting journey exploring perception, illusion and that old, unanswerable question: What is art?

You can't categorize Muniz. (Medium: Photography and . . . Foodstuffs? Dirt? Dust? Trash? Toys? All of the above?) He uses disparate but everyday materials to re-create faces or scenes made by other photographers and artists. He photographs them and destroys his "original." What remains is a copy of a copy.

Or is it?

Technically, yes. And worse, a multiple, not unique at all, if you take that view of photography. Yet the conception and final product, at once familiar and new, a memory and its re-creation, is original.

And so, another question: Once we see an image, imprint it on our brains, funnel it through our imaginations, are not our intellectual claims on it as valid as any copyright?

The exhibition is not arranged chronologically, so you'll find selections from The Best of Life, his earliest series, about midway through the galleries.

Muniz began dealing with the filters of memory soon after he arrived in the United States in the 1980s, speaking little English. He bought a big picture book, The Best of Life, and pored over the iconic photographs from Life magazine. When he lost the book, he tried to retain possession of the photographs by drawing them from memory. Offered a gallery show, he felt they were too crude, so he photographed the drawings in soft focus and printed them in halftones so they resembled grainy black-and-white reproductions.

We immediately recognize young John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket and a screaming girl running from her napalmed village. They aren't exactly the same as the originals, but we're tricked into believing they are. Memory is, after all, imperfect, and we see what we want to see.

Muniz has mined this rich vein in many ways over two decades, having us consider not only mental illusions but optical ones relating to scale, depth perception and materials. He has moved beyond the impulse to fool our eyes. We shift between an overall recognition of the image to a conscious deconstruction of its parts, an elaborate game of visual truth or dare. Everything, in the end, is equalized and unified by its final translation as a photograph.

Using thread, he redraws a Corot landscape. Narrow your eyes and it could be the engraving you sort of remember. Take a clear-eyed look and you see every bit of exquisitely arranged fiber. Same thing with Monet's Water Lilies, collaged with circles cut from magazine pages.

Usually the medium has a direct relationship to subject matter. Mark Rothko's saturated color fields are invoked with art supply color chips. Elizabeth Taylor's glamorous visage is rendered in diamonds glittering on black paper. (And yes, real diamonds, lent by a jeweler and collector who asked Muniz to do it for a charity auction. Muniz returned the gems.) Lewis Carroll's photograph of Alice Liddell is made from thousands of toys. Another vintage photograph, of a young Civil War soldier, is made from toy counterparts.

We must stand back certain distances for the parts to resolve themselves into an image, then move close to see the individual components and understand in what size Muniz worked his original. The size of the photographs documenting the original aren't to scale, either as reproductions of Muniz's constructions or the works of the artists on which they're based. Muniz's version in dripped chocolate of the famous photograph of Jackson Pollock dripping paint on a canvas is small but blown up bigger for the reproduction. Goya's Saturn Devouring One of His Sons is hugely reworked in a warehouse from junk, then reduced photographically, though still larger than the Goya, as is Muniz's Narcissus, After Caravaggio.

You begin to see what I mean about esoteric artspeak. Even straightforward descriptions of Muniz's art can break down in a labyrinth of ideological layers.

See it for yourself. The wall texts provide rich details and a free brochure explains the multiple currents underpinning Muniz's extraordinary talent. Muniz is also an articulate writer who authored a hardbound book for sale at the museum. It isn't a traditional catalog of essays by curators and critics extolling the exhibition's virtues. It's Muniz's life story, told through the development of his ideas and art, interspersed with his own art and that which has influenced and inspired him.

What a gifted individual. And what a gift this show, even temporarily, is to us.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


"Vik Muniz: Reflex" is at the Contemporary Art Museum on the University of South Florida campus, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, through Oct. 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Free admission. Parking is $3 weekdays. 813 974-2849.

[Last modified July 28, 2006, 10:41:45]

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