The L Reviews: Vik Muniz’s Verso

by |
09/30/2008 9:00 AM |

The L‘s Patricia Milder cares about art inspired by the backs of famous paintings, and so should you.

If you’ve spent any time on a Hollywood set, or say, at a photo shoot for anything from food to fashion, you know how common it is to make in-person fake look real (enough) through the lens of a camera. What is different about Vik Muniz’s painstakingly detailed replicas of the backs of some of the most well-known and easily recognized paintings in the world is the tactile experience of them. We are conditioned not to take digital images at face value, but solid frames resting face down against gallery walls create a new set of problems. The urge to tilt the frames back and check out their blind side is overwhelming: a calculated result of the research, time and expert craftsmanship that went into creating them.

Working with a team of forgers, artists and technicians, Muniz oversaw
the making of down-to-the-last-scratch exact replicas of the backs of
such iconic works as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Hoppper’s
Night Hawks. You can’t stop yourself from picturing Van Gogh’s Starry
when you gaze at Muniz’s version of the back, which contains
peeling, weathered labels marking the MOMA’s ownership and the museums to
which it has been lent. Tapping into our collective memory and the
lasting impressions of great artworks, these replicas are able to
conjure a sense of the original and steal a feeling from them:
nostalgia perhaps, or something more. In consideration of the
craftsmanship, certain details become mental fixations –- a small,
jagged piece of yellowed masking tape, perfectly aged, or the finely
duplicated curve of a carelessly scripted number two. For six years,
Muniz worked with the conservation departments of the MOMA, the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago to ensure such

In the backroom of the gallery, Muniz is showing similar re-creations:
the backsides of iconic images from the New York Times. The versos of
these photos have clippings pasted on, as well as stamps and
handwritten notes, bringing the filing and business behind each image
to the forefront. From these messy, natural collages, big ideas come to mind. The back of The Winner in Broad Jump, Jesse Owens is a
6.75 X 9.12 inch frame that contains clippings of captions, date and
publishing stamps, and accidental ink marks, including a stamp reading
"made in Germany." These few words and dates bring up a flood –- Hitler,
race relations in the US, the 1936 Berlin Olympics and history’s path
to Beijing. The idea is clever, even cute: like successful advertising,
it gets your attention and then burrows deeper through collective
social-emotional moments.

Muniz has said of his work with sugar, wire and thread, "I don’t want
people to simply see a representation of something. I want them to feel
how it happens. The moment of that embodiment is what I consider a
spiritual experience." The idea certainly extends to Verso, work most
alive in that moment of misunderstanding, when distinction of fake and
real falters, or doesn’t matter. With pleasure, I imagine one of these
pieces on the floor of a private home or a museum. Brand new, antique
and confusing –- at the very least, inspiring respect for precision.

Vik Muniz: Verso will run until October 11 at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.