Whenever someone wants to see if an artwork is ‘real’, the first gesture is to look at its back or at it’s base; the part of it that normally isn’t visible to anyone but experts, dealers, museum conservators or the artists themselves. This happens because while the image’s objective is to remain eternally the same, its support is constantly changing, telling its story, showing its scars, its labels and periodic clichés. So when a cousin of mine told me his 7-year old could paint a Picasso, I told him ‘probably, but he couldn’t do the back’.
As a teenager, I used to fix the neighbor’s TV as a hobby. I wanted to learn how to fix clocks too. Whenever something‘s function is basically visual, there is always an opening in the back for curiosity to do its damage.
-Vik Muniz in an unpublished interview, 2005
For over 20 years Muniz has consistently defined art as a subtle connection between mind and matter by recreating iconic images while simultaneously revealing and debasing the process of their making. Muniz aims to distill the binding agent connecting concept and substance in art via an exercise of meta-objectivity that reveals the “particle and wave” nature of cultural artifacts in general. While keeping within the conceptual frameworks of Muniz’s previously established images Verso marks a return to the object-making that first brought him attention in the late 1980s.
People who have seen images one million times in books go to the museum to have a chance to read their labels. They would be much happier if the painting was turned backwards so instead of having to associate name to image they would have to imagine the picture while reading the label.
Verso consists of a group of 3-dimensional trompe-l’oeils of the actual backs of such iconic works as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Seurat’s La Grande Jatte that, over a period of six years, Muniz photographed and systematically studied in partnership with the curatorial and conservation departments of MOMA, the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as with a team of dedicated craftsman, artists, forgers, and technicians. These are disconcertingly faithful reproductions in a 1:1 scale realized in an inch-by-inch process that did not spare the slightest detail. Every scratch, dent or scribble is physically reproduced to photographic precision. Authentic looking labels, worn-away tape, faded pencil notations and actual period hardware and carpentry make it hard even for an expert to disbelieve they are seeing the actual backs of these masterpieces.
There is a great tradition of trompe-l‘oeil representations depicting the verso of paintings that hark back to Cornelius Gijsbrechts in the mid-1600s. They can be seen throughout the Baroque period until 19th century with artists such as Harnett and Peto and in the 1960s and 70s in the works of some photo realists but the act of feigning to illustrate painting’s material nature through skillful illusion dates back to the 5th century BC with Parrhasius, the conceptual artist, who fooled Zeuxis by perfectly painting fabric over a “painting.” These are pictures of paintings as commodities and I somehow find something eternally contemporary about them. Drawing attention away from their primary function, as well as from their actual support, these paintings always appear as a responsive redefinition of the medium through the exercise of its own limitations. By continuously updating Parrhasius’ picture-object paradigm the artist is able to embrace the cause of realism with all its foolishness and flamboyance.
Along with Verso, Muniz will be exhibiting equally confounding recreations of the backs of famous photographs from the New York Times archive at MOMA. The backs are full of cancelled dates, yellowed newspaper captions and rubber cement stains offering a glimpse of the life of these images in the newsroom and beyond.
Vik Muniz will be curating an artist’s choice exhibition at MOMA this December. His retrospective, organized by the Miami Art Museum in 2006, is currently on view in Mexico City at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. His work is in the collection of many museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre George Pompidou, the Centro Cultural Reina Sofia, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
Muniz was born in Brazil and currently lives and works in Brazil and Brooklyn.