Reflex, the work of Vik Muniz, fills the Miami Art Museum's upper floor, where you can see his use of improbable, intractable materials like sugar, dust and ketchup to produce images of astonishing realism. Unfortunately, his subject is mostly the work of other people. When he's not copying, he's working from his own uninspired references, or setting up inconsequential challenges to the exercise of looking at art.
It would be churlish to disregard his craftsmanship. In the late 1980s, Muniz became known for a series of images that he drew from memory from a beloved collection of Life Magazine photographs. Not wanting to part with his drawings and fearing that they didn't do justice to the originals, he photographed them, a bit out focus, and presented the photographs. He didn't duplicate the Life images perfectly but he came surprisingly close.
Fortunately for Muniz, they played into the kind of What Are We Looking At game that can score an artist major museological Brownie points. In this case, what are we looking at? I'll let the experts at MAM answer: "Through his witty images, Muniz honors, questions and subverts the traditions of representational art, treading the line between reality and illusion, representation and abstraction, idea and image, means and ends." Honor, question and subvert? Like, all at the same time? This is the sound of an expert disguising an art game as a serious effort.
Despite the enormous skill, cleverness and work ethic Muniz invests in the images, that gamesmanship comes through louder than everything else. Muniz came down to Miami at the beginning of the exhibition to produce "Cloud Cloud," in which he directs a skywriter to draw cartoon clouds. What are we looking at? Are they pictures of clouds? Are they actual clouds? Are they illusions? Are they tangible objects? Would you like fries with that? Keep it up long enough, and one of two things happens - either the exercise degenerates into silliness, or one final, lethal question arises: Why?
The answer, I think, is that the gamesmanship passes for an art experience by virtue of its scale and its mining of art history. The strongest pieces in the show were photographs of drawings done in sugar on black paper, painstakingly reproducing the artist's snapshots of the children of sugar plantation workers in St. Kitts, and similar images of homeless kids in Brazil, executed with debris swept up from the streets after Carnaval parties. In these, the grittiness feels genuine and heartfelt. The Brazilian children copped poses from Velazquez and El Greco under the direction of the artist, and the pieces still don't quite work, but at least they're overly sentimental instead of overly calculated.
After that series, it's all tricks: press photos, complete with screen dots, reproduced in wet ink, Warhol's Jackie-O series done in ketchup, Hans Namuth's portrait of Pollock reproduced in chocolate syrup, Marlene Dietrich rendered with diamonds on black paper, civil war photos copied with toy soldiers. Finally he recreates one of Monet's late water lily works in hole-punched bits of magazines, and Monet can be seen doing the driving while Muniz hangs on tightly to the bumper.
At last Muniz lets go, photographing little mounds of stuff that don't relate to anything except his own inspiration, and we can see that Muniz was hiding all along, behind technique, behind concepts, behind non-art materials, behind the filter of photography, behind other peoples' work. He was hiding because his own inspiration was inadequate for original art-making - the little mounds are embarrassingly trivial. It damns the work beyond redemption to realize that the artist is better when he's not being himself.