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Art Review: Vik Muniz's Poetics of Perception at the Lowe Art Museum

Viewing the large photographs in the Vik Muniz exhibit Poetics of Perception can make your head spin. Yes, some of the pieces are dazzling, but the juxtapositions that are involved in the conception and creation of these photographs are what keep the mind churning. “Perception” is indeed a major element in this show at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum.

Muniz is a Brazilian-born artist who now makes New York home, but his art is inextricably entwined with his native land. It’s a land defined by contradiction: gorgeous and troubled, glamorous and poverty stricken, where some of the most innovative cultural developments in music, dance, art and even soccer arise from the sprawling favelas.

Muniz’s portraits reflect all this, also in an innovative way. He can make the ugly beautiful, and the beautiful unsettling.

The exhibit is introduced by a huge photograph of a world map whose continents are made of junk. Garbage and the detritus of human activity are a common theme in Muniz’s work. He solidified his place high on the international art stage, in fact, with a film called Waste Land, which will be shown at the museum on April 12, and which documents the artwork he created during visits to one of the world’s biggest garbage dumps outside of Rio de Janeiro, called Jardim Gramacho (jardim means garden, just to start with the contradictions).

A number of these works are represented in the exhibit, and they go to the heart of Muniz and his art. At this gigantic open-air trash heap, a class of people — almost a caste of people — have made a life and living. Muniz spent a couple years meeting these workers and eventually documenting them. He invited many of them into his studio, and along with garbage from the jardim, he posed them in photographs. (Numerous accounts of this series point out that Muniz paid these Gramacho scavengers for their time and labor.)

Then, Muniz added another layer, one common to most all his works. His posed the workers to resemble classic figures in art history. We can see Gauguin and Caravaggio in these works, images of Venus and Medusa. These aren’t subtle references; many have the painter or painting’s name in the title. But these reinterpretations take an ultra-contemporary turn when we see, and digest, the materials. Muniz has laid his models in piles of junk, then photographed them and manipulated the final image.

The images are based on fictional and mythological themes, yet they come across as earthy and visceral. There is a poignancy to the portrayals of these people who have to live their lives in piles of trash. Muniz gives them personalities and saves them from being indistinguishable from the refuse around them. The social commentary, of a country filled with so much inequity, is unmistakable.

There is also something absurd about his art, especially in his choice of materials. Employing nonconventional components is another Muniz trademark. He uses not just junk, but sugar, chocolate syrup, peanut butter and ketchup to make his images. It’s another way that Muniz distances himself from the elite world of fine art.

But then on one wall, he spins your head in a different direction, at least at first glance. These are simply gorgeous portraits of female Hollywood legends, such as Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe (the outstanding piece of this diamond series), made not from garbage but from diamonds. These, like other Muniz works, can seem a little kitschy or simple to those who don’t understand their origins and purpose.

Having been loaned thousands of diamonds from famed dealer Lowell Kwiat, Muniz re-created these diamond divas as impossibly glittery and glamorous. No one after all, not even the most rich and famous, is actually made of diamonds. If these portraits stood alone, however, they would not be as impactful as when combined with pictures of the less advantaged.

Back to more earthy matters, and away from the classical and pop references, are several photographs of interventions that Muniz made in the ground. One is a giant pointing finger, carved with heavy equipment into the land, which he photographed from a helicopter. It’s amazing to look at and a little hard to figure out; there’s whimsy here, along with a sensibility that the hands of man can intervene in almost anything. Or so we think.

An off-kilter humor continues with the work titled Still Life With Puppies, a riff on a famous Paul Gauguin. Muniz has completely changed the perspective of the three puppies drinking from a milk bowl, again making the viewer work to determine just what is going on here.

The dance with perception and humor continues with Muniz’s series of works made from —chocolate. At first this seems absurd, but in fact chocolate syrup resembles fresh, shiny, gooey paint. Without realizing the material, at first it will be hard to figure out why the portrait of a woman reading a novel looks so fluid and luscious, one of the best works in the exhibit. Based on an 18th-century painting from Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the chocolate accentuates the brush strokes and the coloring of the original.

Examples from many of Muniz’s series — Pictures of Junk, Pictures of Garbage, Pictures of Color — are hung here. But the show has its flaws. For a fairly small exhibit (this is not a retrospective), the layout is inexplicably cut in two. After viewing the first room of photographs, visitors have to wander through a tapestry show before arriving at the second part. Because it is important to view Muniz’s work in this case as a whole, this is a strange decision. Separated, the works lose some of their intrigue.

Muniz clearly has a lot to say, about people of all strata, about human footprints, about art history and art making. And about soccer. His latest documentary about the beautiful game and in particular the history of the soccer ball itself was released during the World Cup held last summer in Brazil.