Hocus Focus

On a recent Friday afternoon, squadrons of turkey buzzards circled the Claude Pepper Federal Building while a skywriting plane created childlike pictures of clouds in the pristine blue sky.

Some of the faux clouds were shaped like bear claws, and others bore an uncanny resemblance to billowy buttocks, as if the sky-scribbling culprit, Vik Muniz, were cheekily mooning Miami.

He seemed to be cajoling us to examine how an image-driven culture trains us to see, or more specifically, not see clearly enough.

The ephemeral work Cloud Cloud was part of the "Vik Muniz: Reflex" exhibit at the Miami Art Museum (MAM), which features more than 100 large-scale photographs the Brazilian artist created from a stupefying grab bag of materials.

Throughout his career, the maverick illusionist has juggled the roles of cutup and critic, seducing the public with an impish sense of humor while delivering a sharp conceptual sting.

Since 1988, the artist has reconstructed well-known images from history, the media, and popular culture. He uses dirt, sugar, chocolate syrup, diamonds, junk, string, and ketchup to create works that force viewers to ponder the nature of visual representation.

Muniz's perceptual puns have made him one of the contemporary art world's marquee draws. Not surprisingly the exhibit has drawn to MAM many first-time visitors who have heard about the show and popped in to experience the hoopla that seems to shadow the artist's footsteps. It's not every day one stumbles across golden-age Tinseltown divas rendered in diamonds or B movie monsters made of caviar.

Under Muniz's lens, Liz Taylor's fetchingly translucent face glitters when fleshed out by thousands of precious diamonds that cast her in the glow of eternal youth. But an overly reproduced headshot of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster, by now as familiar as George Washington's mug on a greenback, stands the hair on end once the mind computes that the subject's oily brown pallor is concocted from caviar. After a double take, one notices that the scars above the eerie mope's brows are stitched from a weak spit of fish roe almost flash-frozen in mid-rot.

Medusa Marinara will buckle viewers in half. The devilishly funny Caravaggio knockoff makes one wonder if the artist might consider creating a portrait of Dick Cheney out of buckshot. Depicting the mythological Gorgon, known for turning those who gazed at the unsightly hag into stone, the piece was conjured from a plate of pasta and somewhat resembles a painting. Medusa's hissing coif is shown by a tangle of spaghetti, while her menacing scowl is gouged into the sauce. This work is a recipe for rubbernecking and perhaps a far less sinister sight to encounter in a nightmare than our trigger-happy Vice President.

A number of other pictures possessing a painterly quality include a double Mona Lisa — based on Warhol's copy of da Vinci's famous work — sandwiched side by side like conjoined twins with equal parts peanut butter and jelly. Also Action Photo, after Hans Namuth, a drawing Muniz squeezed from a bottle of Bosco, which portrays Jackson Pollock dripping paint onto a canvas, is copied from a well-known still taken by Namuth. One can almost envision Muniz sitting at his kitchen table, splashing the syrup around to create the work in the manner Pollock painted in his garage.

Many pieces from Muniz's early Best of Life series have been gathered for the show and illustrate common images taken from the media. They include the Kent State shootings; the moon landing; John Kennedy, Jr., saluting at his father's funeral; and a solitary man confronting a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. These works, which Muniz calls Memory Renderings, were photographed from the artist's drawings of recollected images from a favorite book he purchased at a garage sale in 1983 and later lost. The pieces were reprinted using a dot-matrix process to capture the original feel of newsprint, and are a commentary on how the media can manipulate imagery, as well as on the selective nature of memory.

It was this series, and the questions it raised, that galvanized Muniz's experimentation with the nature of seeing and the dominance of photography in his work since the late Eighties.

A deceptively subtle series of toned gelatin silver prints — representing a naked light bulb on a string, a pressed shirt, and a suitcase, all rendered in fine lines — dupe the eyes into believing these pictures of wire have actually been drawn by a highly skilled draftsman.

And as mischievous as Muniz can be, he also offers poignant works, namely ones featuring children of sugar-cane plantation workers in the Caribbean. During a 1995 vacation to Saint Kitts, Muniz befriended a group of children who later posed for him. Dazzled by the youngsters' sweet dispositions, he was equally struck by their parents' bitterness toward their hand-to-mouth existence in the back-breaking cane fields.

His portraits of these children, rendered in sugar, are exquisite and convey the artist's haunting sense of sorrow and unease at the specter of hopelessness with which his subjects exist. Muniz wrote that he owes a measure of his career to those children, adding his Sugar Children sparked a series of collaborations with young people that continues to nurture his work.

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.

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.