Childish Things

Vik Muniz's photos prove conceptual art can be fun — while making us look with fresh eyes at familiar images.

click to enlarge BABE IN TOYLAND: Vik Muniz's "Portrait of Alice Liddell, after Lewis Carroll (Rebus)" (2003), chromogenic print, 96 x 72 inches. - Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Nyc
Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Nyc
BABE IN TOYLAND: Vik Muniz's "Portrait of Alice Liddell, after Lewis Carroll (Rebus)" (2003), chromogenic print, 96 x 72 inches.

Artists of all stripes have enjoyed a richly romantic relationship with childhood — or at least, a collective fantasy of childhood as a time of intuition and innocence, before the rigor mortis of academic training and life's hard knocks sets in.

Think of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and their trippy illustrations, or the hieroglyphic watercolors of Paul Klee. Right now in Washington, D.C., an unusual exhibit pairs Klee's childhood drawings with those of Picasso and contemporary children. That we're comfortable exhibiting and discussing children's art in a serious venue says a lot about our high regard for childhood creativity.

Drawing and painting are popularly regarded as the most intuitive media. Conceptual art, on the other hand, typically conjures up an image of sterile and unforgivably grown-up intellectualism — thinking for the sake of thinking.

Opening Friday at USF CAM, a retrospective of work by Vik Muniz proves it's possible to be conceptual and stay in touch with your inner child at the same time. Muniz works from the premise that art and popular culture strive to create the illusion of reality, whether of glamour, coherence or physical space, through suspension of disbelief. With gleeful perversity, he flings a monkey wrench into the gears of that verisimilitude, setting out to create, in his words, the worst possible illusion.

Though Muniz is a photographer — and all the artworks in the exhibit, save one set of prints produced at USF Graphicstudio, are photographs — his work involves elements of sculpture, painting, drawing and the occasional orchestration of public art events.

He begins by using unexpected materials to re-create familiar, iconic images from art history and popular culture — paintings by Monet, Goya and Warhol, well-known photographs from Life magazine, images of film actors and characters. He then documents his re-creations in crisp, vibrant photographs.

His choice of materials would make any kid green with envy. An experienced painter with food, he has produced a double Mona Lisa, one in peanut butter, the other in jelly; a tribute to Jackie O in ketchup; many images in chocolate syrup; and a spaghetti-based Medusa Marinara. Beneath the fun factor simmers a more nuanced inspiration: In the case of the Warhol appropriations, Jackie O and the Mona Lisa, it's the impulse to further abstract an already ubiquitous image. "A copy of a copy is always an original," Muniz muses in the book he designed to accompany the exhibit.

Sundry debris of everyday life, often of consumer culture — cheap plastic toys, holes punched from magazine pages, dirt, trash — also turn up as materials. Their use in some images, from a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor made from diamonds to the outlines of Brazilian street children traced in a layer of post-Carnaval dirt and debris, resonates at social and political levels.

A portrait of Alice Liddell, who may have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's tales of Wonderland, materializes from an array of dime-store toys. Kazoos, water guns, miniature cars, creepy crawlies, chess pieces and a yo-yo or three combine to pay a kind of ironic tribute to the young girl whose un-accessorized imagination sent her flying down the rabbit hole. (With modern toys like these, who needs a reverie?)

Adding another layer of complexity, and referencing his portraits of indigent children, Muniz chose a Carroll image of Liddell — whose family belonged to a relatively privileged class, culturally if not economically — dressed for role-play as a ragamuffin child, hand cupped in a silent plea for spare change. That the portrait, taken by the much-older Carroll, may have had romantic or erotic undertones further complicates the image of childhood innocence.

Other images channel the child as investigative scientist, constantly asking why and how we see, interpret or remember what we do. Minus the adult filter that prevents us from posing ridiculous questions, children ping-pong from the trivial to the profound at escape velocity, often rocketing out into existential or metaphysical territory. Muniz harnesses this same naïveté to examine our relationship with images.

In the series Pictures of Air, which the exhibit unfortunately does not include, he blows up his photographs of air until a constellation of tiny water droplets becomes visible, each one unique (though presumably in a random, rather meaningless way) to its location. In Pictures of Pigment, he creates oil paintings without the oil; instead of a smooth surface, re-creations of Monet's pastel cathedrals using only the powdered pigment present a rocky and sandy expanse of color.

Monet surfaces again in another series, Pictures of Magazines, for which Muniz painstakingly recreates "Water Lilies" with holes punched from magazine pages. In the resulting, enlarged photograph, the tiny circular holes are blown up until the even smaller Benday dots of ink printed on them create a visible pattern. At once a specific play on pointillism and a broader reference to the unconscious visual labor of distilling a single image from many discrete parts, the picture is nonetheless gettable in a second. Like most of Muniz's images, you'll recognize them right away, then spend a while thinking about what makes them different from the ordinary way of seeing.

At the end of August, Tampa residents will have an opportunity to look up and see one of Muniz's works in the sky. When he visits the area for a CAM reception, the artist will also re-create his public art project, "Cloud Cloud." For the project, which has also taken place over Manhattan and Arizona, Muniz engages a skywriting plane to outline a simple cloud shape, reminiscent of a child's drawing.