Hocus Focus

Impish illusionist powerfully probes perception

Muniz's pictures of Brazilian children tell a more brutal story. While participating in the Bienal de São Paulo in 1998, he read an article that suggested almost 5000 children lived on the city's streets, nearly 30 percent of whom were HIV-positive. While roaming São Paulo's alleyways, hoping to engage the waifs, Muniz came across children pillaging garbage cans and begging for money at intersections. He befriended them. They later posed for his Aftermath series despite never having been photographed before. Alarmingly, when the artist asked them to evoke a good memory, none was able, yet the sense of dignity with which the artist portrays the kids is powerfully riveting.

When visiting the show, be sure to catch these visceral works created from garbage Muniz swept from the streets following Ash Wednesday, the day after Carnaval festivities. The pictures are rendered in dirt, shards of glass, cigarette butts, flattened beer cans, tinsel, and bright confetti, and portray his homeless models in a shimmering light, making them seemingly vibrate through the filth of wanton excess.

One of the most arresting works in the show comes from the artist's recent Pictures of Junk series. Mind-boggling in its inventiveness, this mammoth work shows Saturn cannibalizing one of his sons in honor of a Goya painting. The Brooklyn-based Muniz seems to have trucked in the contents of every dump in Jersey to accomplish this feat.

Vik Muniz's Action Photo, after Hans Namuth
Vik Muniz's Action Photo, after Hans Namuth

From afar the picture seems a fairly true copy of the Spanish master's famous work. But as Muniz draws the viewer in to examine his choice of materials, the incredible inventory of crap used to re-create the image becomes evident. Oil drums, wooden barrels, traffic lights, telephone booths, gumball machines, shopping carts, and a piano appear jumbled in the heap, while details are suggested by winding veins of bolts, nuts, aluminum cans, and the occasional pickax.

For the work to make sense, Muniz resorted to distortion when fanning out the pile and then shot it from a distant angle, employing an anamorphous technique to pull off a nifty bit of legerdemain.

Other eye-teasers include pictures made from crates of toy soldiers, thousands of yards of string, and millions of circular pieces of paper from mass-media publications, including a sensational hole-punched pointilist version of Monet's water lilies.

It's a rare thing for an artist to make spectators laugh this hard while provoking them to examine the ease with which we can be snookered by visual deceptions. For a culture numbed by the disturbingly familiar, the artist delivers — with an endless barrage of punch lines — a clinic on seeing with fresh eyes.

MAM's greatest-hits compilation of this genius's oeuvre practically guarantees viewers will be calling the chiropractor for treatment and thanking Muniz for inducing the whiplash.

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