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My Vik Muniz review, the gift that keeps on giving

Post #1358 • June 1, 2009, 9:09 AM

I figured into a January 2009 article on Vik Muniz by Kristen French, writing for Guernica.

[Muniz's] antipathy towards critics might be warranted, to an extent. As often happens when an artist becomes wildly popular—and especially right around the time the artist puts on a retrospective (as Muniz did in 2006)—there has been some critical backlash. In a funny way, the critical response to Muniz imitates the very conflict at the center of his work: he’s attacked for being gimmicky, easy, lacking in depth—a response that could itself be criticized for being gimmicky, easy, lacking in depth. Critics deplore his populism, as if reaching a mass audience were evidence of failure. “Despite the enormous skill, cleverness, and work ethic Muniz invests in the images, that gamesmanship comes through louder than everything else,” writes Franklin Einspruch in a review of Muniz’s retrospective, in the Miami Sun Post in April 2006. “The gamesmanship passes for an art experience by virtue of its scale and its mining of art history.” To which an appropriate response might be: hate the game, not the player.

At the moment, I'm hating the sight of French quoting my writing selectively, couching it in attributed motives, and using it as evidence of points that I never made in the first place, all so her subject could seem to lazily refute them. Which he does, through the magic of editing.

Muniz shrugs off such criticism, offering as a response a trickster’s riddle: “Depth is an illusion, because if you dig a hole, you think you are going deep into something, but you actually get twice the amount of surface,” he says, a bit coyly. “I dwell in the realm of surfaces and I am a superficial person.” That said, it does seem to bother him that some people don’t see beyond the surface and the materials. “Sometimes I’m annoyed when the discussion doesn’t go beyond that,” he says with a frown (the afternoon’s first). He really wants viewers to think—in the broadest terms—about the power and magic in representation, and to explore deeper questions about how the materials inform the subject of the work.

The cited review had an entirely different rationale. French implies that Muniz's incipient wild popularity (the very existence thereof I question, but let's move on) prompted me to write negatively about his work. I invite her to produce the evidence for this assertion. I would have thought hard before calling his work gimmicky. Gimmicks can work beautifully in the right hands. Neither did I call it easy; if anything, Muniz demonstrates that protracted, grueling effort can amount to trifles. Muniz's work does lack depth, but it has shortcomings that additional depth wouldn't remediate. I have no feelings about his populism, and would never equate widespread appeal with failure in his case or anyone else's.

In a single paragraph, Ms. French put words in my mouth, threw them back at me, and ascribed motives to me for saying them.

Does this sound familiar? It may, because two years ago another writer cited the same review, with basically the same results. Leah Ollman, writing for the LA Times:

Depth, though, is not what every viewer -- or critic -- sees in Muniz's efforts. Though he has been hailed in print as a "smart provocateur" and his work described as "exquisitely crafted" and "devilishly funny," he has also been skewered by writers who find his work superficial, gimmicky, "clownish," more about "gamesmanship" than anything else.

Reviewing the "Reflex" exhibition for the Miami Sun Post last year, Franklin Einspruch dismissed Muniz as a clever poacher, hiding "behind technique, behind concepts, behind non-art materials, behind the filter of photography, behind other people's work." Muniz lacks inspiration of his own, the writer concluded, referring to what he judged a disappointing group of photographs of studio debris, a rare series not based on replicating the works of others. "It damns the work beyond redemption to realize that the artist is better when he's not being himself."

This, at least, didn't injure the original meaning. Again, probably appearing to do so via editing, Muniz responded predictably.

All great art is gimmicky to some extent, Muniz argues in his defense. It has to be visually engaging, and can get there by whatever means necessary.

"People don't take me seriously because there's humor in the work, as if humor was something that would take intelligence out. Having enough freedom with the way you put your ideas that you can subvert them from within -- this is humor. It's a powerful tool to get people into what you're doing or to attract people to what you're trying to say."

For the record, I don't take Muniz seriously because his work is boring. It's visually engaging only by the standards of an ad man (which he was), and its conceptual component doesn't evoke anything worth pondering. I don't think that humor and intelligence exclude each other; I doubt anyone does. I don't think his oeuvre is bad because it's silly—I think it's silly because it's bad. Have I made myself adequately clear?

But I refuse these and all further attempts to turn me into the representative of a plurality of detractors that might legitimize Muniz if it existed. "Lack of depth" hails from Nancy Tousley at the Calgary Herald. "Superficial" may derive from this brief mention at ArtSlant by Frances Guerin. From there, provenances deteriorate. "Clownish" comes from a lukewarm but sympathetic Jerry Saltz review from 2001. Several hypothetical perptetrators of rhetorical disagreement have called the work "gimmicky" in a pejorative manner, but no real people I can find. "Easy" is untraceable.

We are not legion, which is too bad for taste, but it's also too bad for straw-man arguments against Muniz, which, oddly, only his defenders are making. The arbitrary aggregate of critics who failed to appreciate key moderns from van Gogh to Pollock has no contemporary counterpart, at least regarding Muniz. Hence there's no chance of it putting itself similarly on the wrong side of history by failing to appreciate him. Critics striving to establish the lasting importance of Muniz's conceptualist baubles are going to have to reach elsewhere for justification.

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